Ben Watches Television : Mr. Robot, Season One (2015)
* spoilers, I guess *
Television had a good thing going for a couple years. The success of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire turned the medium into a haven for original thinkers and creative powerhouses that didn't fit Hollywood's big money system: Vince Gilligan, Damon Lindelof, Matthew Weiner, Graham Yost, author television was a thing for a while. That was before the vultures of capitalism began circling television studios and flooding the airwaves with opportunistic crap and ruining this blissful hiatus from the throes of consumerism. I've been actively avoiding television in 2016, looking to find THE series that would help me recapture the elating feeling of watching great television.
I gave the first season of Mr. Robot a run during my vacation since it garnered such unilateral praise and...yeesh...that thing broke my heart harder than entitled 15 year old girls seeking validation through romance used to.
If you didn't already know, Mr. Robot is the story of Elliot Alderson (played by Rami Malek), an incredibly skilled computer programmer with anxiety issues who hacks into everybody's personal life as a mean of social interaction, which leads him to play vigilante when the situation demands it. He's contacted by the head of an underground hacker group (played by Christian Slater himself) in order to take down "Evil Corp", the series stand-in for Enron, and destroy the credit information they hold on their customers. Pretty rad, huh?
That's the frustrating thing about Mr. Robot. It's supposed to be rad, but it's like watching a vintage Ford Mustang rip-roaring to life, glide down the road and head right into a fucking wall. Seriously, it's the best way I can describe the experience of watching this show. It has great elements. For starters, Elliot is a tremendous protagonist. He's got a particular set of skills, like Liam Neeson would say, yet he NEEDS other people to function and, perhaps the best thing about him, is that he's always caught between a rock and a hard place.
What makes Elliot Alderson endearing to me isn't his hacking skills. It's the fact that he's caught between a soulless desk job and an abusive father figure who wants to use him to further his own agenda. Elliot is far from being helpless, yet he has relatable problems which make him endearing. He's a badass hacker on his way to change the world, yet struggles to find someone who gives a shit to connect with on a personal level. What I'm trying to say is that Elliot Alderson is an empowering character. An average Joe in real life and a deadly sniper in cyberspace. He's well-written and well-written characters are becoming a scarce commodity in this new era where television screenwriters are trying to "sell people what they want to see." Whatever it means.
Another thing Mr. Robot is doing life-affirmingly well is writing antagonists. Take the cartoonishly evil Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) for example. He's a character that thrives in context. He'd be a terrible main antagonist, but show creator Sam Esmail uses him like a Joker in a set of cards. He's violent, inhuman, unpredictable and perhaps the best thing about him is that he's just a pawn in the bigger picture and it's driving him insane. Wellick is a control freak. He NEEDS to be "the man" and yet he keeps being denied that opportunity. He's not the only antagonist in Mr. Robot though. The majority of characters are being shitty to Elliot in that show. Perhaps the most underrated bad guy is Angela (Portia Doubleday), Elliot's childhood friend, who seems ready to torture and kill whoever it takes if her pay check depended on it.
There's a lot to like about the first season of Mr. Robot, yet it unfortunately doesn't amount to more than the sum of its parts. The problem is with storytelling. There are these great characters interacting with one another, yet Sam Esmail doesn't seem to know what to do with them. After three or four episodes, Mr. Robot starts telling you: "hey, we're really influenced by Fight Club" and after six or seven : "we kind of have the same exact plot as Fight Club. We're sorry if we lead you to believe there was anything more to it." The show doesn't have any qualms about turning into a cheap knockoff halfway into its existence either, playing an instrumental version of the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" during the last episode. As if they couldn't be any more obvious.
Now, I love Fight Club to death, but the "plot twist" wasn't the interesting part of the movie and swiping it because you don't know what the fuck you're supposed to do with your characters is pretty goddamn cheap. Perhaps Mr. Robot's worst transgression though is its finale. The toughest thing to write has always been an ending, whether it's open-ended or not and Sam Esmail couldn't have missed his mark any worse: hey guys, you know that kickass event we've lead up to all season? Well, it's going to happen off screen and nobody's going to remember anything about it, really. Plus, we're not going to resolve anything because we really need to sell season two to the network. Ugh.
I really wanted to like Mr. Robot and I sporadically did up until episode 9. It began as a creative triumph and slowly, slowly drifted as the season chugged along into easy decisions and infuriating clichés. The painful irony of Mr. Robot is that the capitalist concerns the show claims to expose gradually infect it and undermines its quality. Wisecrack's Jared wasn't lying when he said capitalism was great at cooptation: you can be a productive part of the system while claiming to fight it at the same time and it's exactly what Mr. Robot does by bending over and creating artificial drama in order to better sell a second season. Don't think I'm going to even bother with season two, really. There's only so much heartbreak your homeboy can take.