The Buzz: Netflix’s ‘Better Than Us’ Better Than Expected
First there was Siri, then Alexa, now there is Arisa. In Netflix’s latest sci-fi drama, Better Than Us (Andrey Junkovsky 2019), humanity is called into question. What does it mean exactly to be human? The show, originally in Russian, takes place in a world where humanoid androids are as commonplace as cars. The androids, called bots, are advanced enough to interact with humans; although, none have the capacity to understand and identify human emotion. At least none of them until CRONOS, Russia’s largest manufacturer of bots, develops Arisa (Paulina Adreeva), the first bot with the ability to empathize. Part nanny, part smart phone, and part terminator, Arisa enters the world with an innocuous and childlike approach to the world.
The show itself is serialized and mainly character driven, with convoluted plotlines that are almost as slow as the bots themselves. On their own, the characters are formulaic and easily identifiable to anyone with a passing knowledge of sci-fi tropes. There is the genius father struggling to connect with his children, the sardonic detective, the manic pixie girl, and even the shady business corporation. Despite these tropes, the character interactions are what cause Better Than Us to truly stand out amidst all the other android based shows.
The Safronov Family
Georgy Safronov (Kirill Kyaro) is a former surgeon turned mortician who is currently in the middle of a custody battle of his children, 6-year old Sonya (Vita Korienko) and sullen teenager Egor (Eldar Kalimulin). Georgy is distraught, and when CRONOS offers him hush money to keep the murder of one of their security guards secret, he accepts. Georgy is simultaneously selfish and selfless. He acts in what he considers is best for his family but doesn’t always listen to reason. It is his daughter, Sonya, who first interacts with Arisa and manages to sneak her home like a human shaped version of E.T. Given a majority of the screen time, the Safronov family plotline is a likened to a melodrama. The interest in the Safronov family doesn’t come from their internal disputes, but their larger involvement with Cronos and how they shape Arisa’s development.
The Detective & CRONOS
Detective Borisovich (Kirill Polukin) may be the only reason why there even is a plot in the initial episodes. It is his undying will to uncover Georgy’s implicit involvement with CRONOS that forces Georgy to take even further desperate measures to keep his growing list of secrets safe. At the end of the day, Georgy is only a steppingstone to an even greater catch, Viktor Toropov (Aleksandr Ustyugov), the head and face of CRONOS. Toropov is a dangerous figure, a man with a tragic past and a near obsessive need for a better future. While at times a bit sympathetic, Toropov is the main “big bad” of the first season. Although, by the end, he is at level with a secondary character, Gleb (Fedor Lavrov).
The Liquidators and Egor
Set up in the second episode, the Liquidators may be the show’s biggest disappointment. The liquidators are introduced in episode two as a larger than life extremist riot group who detest and protest all types of bots. However, they end up as little more than a bunch of rebellious teenagers and barely legal adults. It’s like a group of Lost Boys – the Peter Pan kind, not the Santa Carla vampire ones from the 80s – but with robots. This is even further cemented by the fact that the audience’s first look into the “behind the scenes” of the Liquidators is through Egor Safronov’s romance with Zhanna, (Vera Panfilova) who is the sister of a Liquidator member. A romance which, by the way, has absolutely no basis or build up other than the fact that he’s a he and she’s a she. One minute, she accidentally spills soda on him, the next, they’re making out while the Liquidators hoop and holler about how much they hate bots.
Arisa and the City
The most intriguing part of the show is in the mundanity of this world. The series opens up with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. In each episode, Arisa manages to break or contradict at least one of them. For instance, the first law “no robot should harm a human” is already violated when Arisa chokes a CRONOS security guard in episode one. Arisa enters the world with bright and fresh eyes, much like the audience themselves. Truly, the city itself is a character. In areas more populated by bots, the colors are monochromatic and simplistic. On the other hand, areas or scenes with a focus on humanity are brightly lit and lively, such as the picnic scene in episode 5. It is fascinating to observe the ordinary goings on of this futuristic Moscow. In lieu of establishing shots, the show favors bird’s-eye shots, observing the landscape and life down below whenever there’s a change in scene. There are businessmen on hoverboards, technology literally downloaded onto human skin, and, obviously, lifelike robots. Paulina Adreeva’s portrayal of Arisa is applaudable. Her unnatural stillness and near perfect symmetry are the Uncanny Valley theory brought to life. Even with a monotone voice and slow, precise movements, Arisa has more emotion to her than most of the characters combined. She can go from a little girl’s dream – a life-sized Barbie who does whatever asked of her – to an unpredictable mimicry of free will. The connecting force between all the various plotlines, she is the main example of how love, whether artificial or genuine, can not be explained or defined.
While there are several inconsistencies or areas of confusion, such as how Arisa can commit certain acts of agency without prompting from a “primary user”, it is overall excusable. Better Than Us is a show reflective not of the beauty of humankind, but of its complexity. Its defects. While not the best show for an introduction into science fiction, fans of the genre will definitely enjoy.