Tuesday, July 12, 2016

AFOS Blog Rewind: Mr. Robot season 1 brought us a summertime mystery as intriguing as "Is Picard a goner?" and "Is DiCaprio still asleep?"

Mr. Robot creator/showrunner Sam Esmail and his actors picked up the Golden Globe for Best Drama Series earlier this year.

The second season of Mr. Robot begins this Wednesday on the USA network, three days after the network surprised the Internet by pulling a Beyoncé and posting the entire first half of Mr. Robot's two-part season premiere on Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube and usanetwork.com for only approximately an hour and 50 minutes. After that nearly two-hour period, USA deleted the episode from the four platforms--an enigmatic and cold-hearted move straight out of the titular hacktivist's playbook. So from August 5, 2015, here's a repost of my discussion of the first six episodes of Mr. Robot's compelling first season.

I still remember the date: June 18, 1990. Star Trek had killed off major, non-redshirt crew member characters before (Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan and Tasha Yar on The Next Generation). But on that date, The Next Generation looked like it was about to go a step further and actually write its captain off the show. What the hell was going on? Was Patrick Stewart's contract not renewed? Did he piss off the Next Generation showrunner? Did he piss off someone from the Minoxidil Mafia?

June 18, 1990 was when The Next Generation finally stepped out of the shadow of the original Star Trek and proved at the end of "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I" that it was going to take certain chances with its storytelling--or rather, boldly go where no Star Trek incarnation had gone before. Sure, The Next Generation had done a few excellent episodes before--"A Matter of Honor," a standout hour where Riker temporarily serves on a Klingon ship, immediately comes to mind--but "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I" upped the ante with an especially tense hour full of possible changes to the show's status quo and moments of Starfleet being under attack in ways that hadn't been seen since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

On the old Star Trek, the Enterprise's most powerful antagonists, whether it was a starship-devouring machine or an actual god, would always be defeated or outwitted by the Enterprise crew in less than an hour. But the Borg, which the Enterprise-D first encountered a year before in "Q Who," were so powerful and unstoppable during "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I" that they clearly weren't going to be put down at the end of act five, especially after they transformed Captain Picard into one of them and assimilated his skills as a commander and his knowledge of Starfleet so that they could now attack the fleet's weaknesses. And it all ended with the most memorable final line in a Star Trek story--Riker saying, "Mr. Worf, fire"--until Picard's "Five-card stud, nothing wild... and the sky's the limit" line at the end of The Next Generation's final episode, that is.

It was one hell of a way to start the summer. I really thought "The Best of Both Worlds" was going to resume the following September with Picard floating around in a white robe and playing a golden Vulcan harp. A few discussions of the impact of "The Best of Both Worlds" have tended to say, "This was before the Internet, so over the summer, Next Generation viewers shared their excitement over the cliffhanger in the most old-fashioned ways: over the watercooler, phone chats, the convention at the Ramada, telegrams, carrier pigeons..." But because these are Star Trek fans we're talking about here, many of them have always been computer-savvy, and the ones who were the most computer-savvy were actually ahead of everyone else communication-wise in 1990 when they speculated over Picard's fate on things called BBSes. Remember those?

Once in a while, a really juicy mystery comes along in the summer and rocks the pop culture world. In 1990, it was "Is Riker going to kill Picard?" In 2010, it was "Is Leonardo DiCaprio still in the dream world? Because that damn top wouldn't stop spinning!" Summer's supposed to be the time for dumb blockbusters and breezy escapism, not thought-provoking and dystopian narratives. So thanks a lot, Mr. Robot, for ruining the summer with your hacktivist leanings, your mistrust of corporations, your frustrations with economic inequality, your moral ambiguity, your clever use of (often moody) music, your unreliable narrator who can't tell apart reality from his imagination and your handful of nifty mysteries that are the next "Is Leo still asleep?"

Mr. Robot is the story of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a morphine-addicted, anti-social Manhattan cybersecurity expert whose skills as a vigilante hacker attract the attention of the titular anarchist (Christian Slater), who recruits Elliot to help him and a band of hackers known as "fsociety" take down corporate America, particularly a conglomerate called E Corp. I can't think of another previous hour-long drama that debuted in the summer and was as stylish or as eerie or as playful about its storytelling as Mr. Robot. People who were born before the Vietnam War--that's all this blog's fucking readership seems to be made up of--will probably say to me, "There was The Prisoner. That premiered in the summer." First of all, stop flaunting your age and all the things you've gotten to watch and read. Second of all, I'm much younger than you. Am I supposed to care that The Prisoner was a summer replacement for Jackie Gleason's variety show? (Really? That's like if Red Skelton temporarily lent his time slot to Superjail.) I first encountered The Prisoner in the same way everyone else has: Netflix and not at all in the summer. I'm supposed to be impressed that you watched The Prisoner before everyone else was watching it? Give it a rest, alright, hipster?

Netflix's DVD rental service allowed me to marathon The Prisoner over the course of only three weeks one winter, while people who first caught The Prisoner on CBS in 1968 had to experience it from June to September. Now I know how they must have felt when they stumbled into this show that came out of nowhere and tried to figure out what exactly was going on while they were sweating buckets. I assume the two or three viewers who watched The Prisoner that summer exchanged theories about Number One's identity via Western Union.

Created and showrun by Sam Esmail and renewed for a second season, Mr. Robot came out of nowhere as well and has turned into USA's most talked-about original show since the earlier days of its "blue skies" template, which made hit shows out of breezy high concepts like a San Francisco ex-cop with OCD (Monk) and a spy who gets burned by his agency and finds work in Miami as a modern-day, pre-Denzel Equalizer (Burn Notice). So USA's association with the dark Mr. Robot is a bit of a surprise because of its reputation as the "blue skies" network, but it's not like USA hasn't tried to cloudy up the blue skies aesthetic before. Suits takes place in a frequently chilly-looking Manhattan (it's actually Toronto, which explains the chilly look) where ruthless litigators blurt out "shit" every other minute because USA won't let them say "fuck." But aside from lousy weather conditions, numerous S-bombs, law firm power struggles and angsty sex with Meghan Markle in the file room, that show is really just lifestyle porn like USA's Hamptons concierge doctor show Royal Pains--or Entourage or long before that, Dynasty.

Meanwhile, Mr. Robot is USA fare at its cloudiest. Elliot's social anxiety disorder and depression aren't played for Monk-style laughs. He has noble intentions about wanting to protect the few people he can relate to, whether it's his co-worker and childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) or his therapist (Gloria Reuben), but he goes about them in creepy, invasive and online stalker-y ways. Sociopathic E Corp vice president Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), one of Elliot's antagonists, beats up homeless people to blow off steam and will do anything to get his hands on the position of E Corp CTO, whether it's gay sex or busting in on the wife (Michele Hicks) of a CTO candidate (Brian Stokes Mitchell) while she's on the toilet and propositioning her. The show gets to say "fuck" (even though, like the S-bombs during daytime repeats of Suits, the F-bombs are censored by USA). The characters are into much harder drugs than the weed Suits hero Mike Ross preferred in the first season. Mr. Robot is escapist in the same way Breaking Bad was escapist--in other words, not very much, unless you're the kind of viewer who rooted for Heisenberg to conquer the meth trade and liked to frequently call Skyler a "cunt" for getting in Heisenberg's way, which would make you certifiable.

That's right, El...
You lost. And let me tell you what you didn't win: a 20-volume set of the Encyclopedia International, a case of Turtle Wax and a year's supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat!

"It's easy to think that Mr. Robot is Pump Up the Volume's outlaw DJ Hard Harry, released from jail 25 years later and realizing that using ham radio to bring down corrupt school administrators isn't enough any more. That's not a knock on Slater, whose performance here traffics in his signature sharky charisma without overdoing it. It's just that the show's revolutionary spirit is essentially as juvenile as Hard Harry's," wrote Dennis Perkins at the A.V. Club. Perkins' mixed review of the Mr. Robot pilot proves why judging a TV show based solely on its premiere episode is now such a mistake in the age of slow-building storytelling on hour-long dramas that aren't procedurals.

That pilot was a little too Dexter-y for my tastes, from the method in which Elliot collects as trophies a digital memento of each of his targets (a quirk that hasn't really appeared again on the show) to the choice of a pedophile as the first scumbag we see Elliot take down, a simple way to get the audience to immediately side with the main character's brand of justice (in Mr. Robot's pilot, the pedo's a coffee shop chain owner who's a child pornographer, while in Dexter's pilot, he's a pastor who killed the kids he abused). Unlike Pump Up the Volume, Mr. Robot has veered away from the romanticizing of Elliot and his point of view that took place in the pilot and is evolving into an even murkier and not-at-all-juvenile show, although Elliot's gripes about society are perfectly valid.

The show has interestingly started to morally complicate Elliot's crusade in ways that Dexter ended up rejecting (it gave up on challenging viewers to question the titular serial killer's vigilantism and basically admitted "He's the hero we need"), as well as add grim consequences to that crusade. After joining forces with fsociety, Elliot's targets have started to include ordinary working folk in addition to pedos and unapologetic criminals, and in "ep1.43xpl0its.wmv," fsociety's heist movie-style plan to infiltrate the Steel Mountain facility requires Elliot to trace the online footprint of a schlubby Steel Mountain tour guide and use the info he picked up to talk this man into giving him access to the facility's climate control system. The minute I noticed that the schlub was that poor gay guy Briscoe and Logan were unable to save from getting shanked in prison at the end of the classic 1994 Law & Order episode "Mayhem," I knew Elliot was going to psychologically destroy him (and feel awful about it) and that it was going to be difficult to watch. I wonder if Elliot is headed towards a Walter White-style heel turn and will lose his soul while trying to protect others. At the rate fsociety is going in its takedown of the corporate world, it's as if Elliot is one Lily of the Valley plant away from poisoning an innocent little kid.

So how dirty will Elliot's hands get as fsociety's plan moves forward--and how will he recover from the grief he's experiencing after a recent target of his, drug dealer Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), retaliated against Elliot by killing his neighbor and fuckbuddy Shayla (Frankie Shaw)? The last two Mr. Robot episodes have piled those questions onto the mystery that's placed Mr. Robot at the center of "Is Leo still dreaming?"-type discussions or debates on the Internet since its premiere: How much of the show is real and how much of it is a figment of Elliot's imagination? Every time any character outside of Elliot--including any news anchor on TV--refers to E Corp as "Evil Corp," we know we're watching Elliot's imagination. But is Mr. Robot a Tyler Durden-style part of his imagination too? None of the other fsociety hackers were seen talking to Mr. Robot--until the day he was seen chewing out Darlene (Carly Chaikin) for failing to recruit to his cause another group of hackers, the Dark Army. If the outgoing and fatherly Mr. Robot is both a part of Elliot's split personality and a manifestation of his dead father, was Darlene actually apologizing to Elliot for her screw-up? Or could Darlene be in Elliot's head too? So that could mean we're not just getting Fight Club vibes from Mr. Robot: there's also the possibility that Elliot has multiple personalities and each member of fsociety is a personality of Elliot's--shades of the 2003 James Mangold thriller Identity.

Some of these "Here's what may be real and here's what may be not" theories are making my head hurt, and it all could have been frustrating and difficult to sit through had Mr. Robot been extremely dour or lacking in style and wit. I love how the show opted for Len's "Steal My Sunshine" instead of Katrina and the Waves' overplayed "Walking on Sunshine" during Elliot's "I'm gonna be more normal now" voiceover. That moment of humor in the third episode was when Mr. Robot won me over. For other Mr. Robot viewers who have also found the occasional humor to be a welcome relief from the darkness, the humorous moment that won them over might have been the scene where Elliot's new fsociety friends are watching on TV the 1995 Angelina Jolie movie Hackers and ripping apart the movie's clichéd depiction of hacking. Fortunately, the humor on Mr. Robot--which is also embodied by the show's episode titling system, where every episode title is made to look like a torrent file name--is never too broadly played like the humor on Dexter sometimes was.



The original score music by Mac Quayle, who worked with Cliff Martinez on the scores to Drive and Only God Forgives, nicely heightens the suspense on Mr. Robot and channels Martinez scores like his scores for The Knick, as well as the work of Tangerine Dream, whose classic "Love on a Real Train" theme from Risky Business makes an appearance at the end of "ep1.43xpl0its.wmv." The combination of Quayle's music and the heavy use of negative space in the show's cinematography, especially in last week's "eps1.5br4ve-trave1er.asf," makes for one really distinctive vibe and look on the current USA lineup.

The heavy use of negative space is an effective way to illustrate Elliot's paranoia and discontent, but this off-kilter approach to cinematography isn't new to TV. The now-defunct White Collar, another USA show that, like Mr. Robot, was filmed on location in New York, frequently surrounded its actors with tons of negative space, and so did Luther, a gorgeously shot crime show that had a split personality like the one Elliot appears to be afflicted with: the show where Idris Elba interacted with comely nemesis-turned-BFF Ruth Wilson was more intriguing and alive than the show where Elba was busting much more run-of-the-mill psychos (that's why the first season, where's it's all Wilson all the time, is Luther's best).

So not everything about Mr. Robot is original. The fact that nobody (except Elliot and Darlene) acknowledges Mr. Robot's presence in the room is, like I've said before, Durden-ish, as is fsociety's plan to liberate regular working people from all their debts. But Esmail makes these elements seem fresh, and he's found a terrific actor to make us relate to this material. Even before the popularity of this show brought an end to Slater's longtime reputation as a showkiller, you could sense Slater's delight in the offbeat material Esmail wrote for him and Malek (the casting of Hard Harry as the angel--or is he the devil?--on Elliot's shoulder is inspired casting), but Slater's neither the real star of Mr. Robot nor the performer who makes us relate to the material. That would be Malek, whom I remember best for the great little bits of minimalist and underplayed comedy he brought to his role in Short Term 12 as an awkward new staffer at a group foster home. On Mr. Robot, he brings that same kind of minimalism to the introverted and low-energy Elliot, but it's never a flat or one-note performance.

A lot of Malek's energy as Elliot takes place in his eyes rather than in his monotone voice or his buried-under-a-hoodie body (a hoodie that Malek has interestingly referred to during a Grantland interview as "an urban combat uniform" for Elliot), and that draws us in to Elliot and lets us see what this person who's a closed book is thinking when he's not narrating. Mr. Robot has been frequently compared to Taxi Driver, and outside of Malek's voiceovers, that's the most Travis Bickle-y part of his performance as Elliot: whatever's going on with his eyes. Some of Taxi Driver's most memorable shots were the close-ups on Robert De Niro's nervous and crazy eyes. Martin Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman were clearly mesmerized by De Niro's eye acting. So you might not like Elliot because he reminds you too much of Travis or all the things you hate about real-life hackers and online misanthropes, but Malek is integral to why you can't take your eyes off Mr. Robot: Malek's not like any other lead on a USA original show right now, and the show's not like any other piece of summertime entertainment right now. Mr. Robot, fire.

Selections from Mac Quayle's first-season Mr. Robot score album and the film scores that influenced Quayle during season 1 can be heard during my mix "My Perfect Maze."

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