‘Better Than Us’: And they speak Russian!

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Reviewed by Alicia Glass

A family on the verge of breaking apart becomes embroiled in the cutthroat domestic robot business when a brand new super-bot escapes and imprints on the youngest of them.

Who hasn’t seen ‘I, Robot’ or any number of other robotic works based on the writings of legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov? The show begins by detailing out the three main laws of robotics as set down by Asimov himself: robots may not harm humans, robots must obey human orders, and yes, robots have a right to protect their own existence so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. These 3 Laws present no end of conflict in both the existences of said robots, and the humans trying to take advantage of and keep a firm reign on robots they themselves are building.

In present-day Russia, the cybernetics company known as Cronos is the main contender for all robotic concerns in Moscow and beyond. Head of the company Victor Toropov (Aleksandr Ustyugov), is beset on all sides by serious issues – his wife teeters on the edge of insanity after the death of their only child Boris, and even the secret replacement Victor provided her isn’t really cutting it anymore. Vic’s father-in-law Alexei Losev (Sergey Sosnovskiy) is a strong shareholder in Cronos and makes no bones about barking orders at Vic for everything, including the best way to fix his wife, Losev’s daughter Svetlana (Irina Tarannik), by making her pregnant so they can have another child and solve everything wrong in their marriage that way. Vic’s partner and best engineer Maslovsky (Pavel Vorozhtsov) happens to be dipping his wick in the company ink, as it were, and disapproves of a great many things Vic does, but he doggedly continues to share his concerns aloud, take his verbal abuse in return and follow orders – until he doesn’t. And to top it all off, the brand new state-of-the-art top secret Chinese-made robot that Toropov had smuggled into the city for all kinds of nefarious purposes, has gone missing.

But that is far from all. That self-same one-of-a-kind robot Arisa (Paulina Andreeva), in the space of being left alone with the wrong users for a short period of time, managed to protect her own existence by committing a murder, escape her confines smoothly and without further incidents, and imprint indelibly on a little girl. This vivacious and unabashed daughter of George Safronov, Sonya (Vitalyia Kornienko), takes to Arisa like girls have done to pets, to friends, and friends that became family, since time immemorial. And so from the first flush of independence, Arisa the top secret next-gen bot everyone is after, knows love and compassion, from a little girl who is loved by all around her, even as her family wounds each-other with their dramas and pride.

Elder son Egor (Eldar Kalimulin) is a little teenage rebel, or likes to think he is. He certainly wants Jeanne, the cocky street girl he wants desperately to hook up with, to think so. Jeanne (Vera Panfilova) has concerns of her own, mainly the ones involving her brother Bars and his gang of would-be revolutionaries, the ones against the robots taking over their jobs and especially against the Early Retirement Act, they call themselves Liquidators, for that is what they do to bots. Gangs of aimless teenage thugs and miscreants, the lost searching for a cause, gather and storm unsuspecting bots, any model they can get their hands on really, and despoil and destroy them in a rather ‘Lord of the Flies’ fashion. And brother Bars (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) is their leader. This means, at least initially, Bars is the one Egor needs to impress if he wants to be with Jeanne.

Poor Safronov (Kirill Karo) is off trying to deal with his devious plotter of an ex-wife Lara and her attempt to take both children and her new husband off to Australia from under his very nose, when the final, a bit anticlimactic but certainly relevant, meeting and final imprint happens between Georgy and Arisa.

Having a bot who sees your ex-wife as a rival and is trying to convince you to go on dates with her between you and your past enemies who are now rearing their ugly heads again in the search for Arisa, has to be strange for Safronov. Georgy does manage to keep his cool a fair amount of the time, but then he starts yelling and even Arisa lets him finish. The hunt for Arisa begins to intensify as the people are trying to push through the government the Early Retirement Act and a contest of finest bot between China and Russia will go down, with Arisa slated for the main star of Moscow’s finest. The cops and especially Major Varlamov (Jonathon Fahn), are cracking down hard in the search too – for whatever they can use to prove, finally, that Victor Toropov is a murderer.

Excellent acting on all parts concerned, but of course main applause has to go to Paulina Andreeva, who played Arisa beautifully, in multiple believable bot-awakening-like displays of raw emotion. All good sci-fi dramas remember to layer mysteries in with emotional displays, and here again ‘Better Than Us’ does not disappoint, deftly leaving some answers right for the end, keeping you watching and fascinated. The question of robotic existence-cum-life versus the apparently declining value of human life is presented staggeringly well from every angle, including some unexpected ones. It is mildly strange to be listening to all of them speak Russian, but really, the production values were great and all the practical effects worked quite well.

In the finest Asimov tradition, give the show a chance to prove it truly is, ‘Better Than Us’!