Mr. Robot: How the Internet (and Anxiety about Big Brother, Corporate Villainy, Cyber Security and Ultimately the Unknowability of Others) is Fueling a Cable TV Hit
Mr. Robot is, IMHO, one of the best new shows on TV.
Some of us first learned about the USA Network show - about a hacker - played by Rami Malek - who struggles with questions of morality and identity in the dark corners of 21st century NYC - through social media recommendations.
Some may have encountered the faux-subversive campaign (see the video above) that "gamified" the cyber crime elements of the plot.
Maybe this is the first you're hearing about it.
For marketing the show - and for the unique approach to storytelling that series creator and executive producer Sam Esmail has taken with Mr. Robot - the internet itself seems to be the point.
Even though Mr. Robot is being presented as weekly appointment (Old World day part) viewing on USA, it's the binge-watching audience parting experience of the internet - and its aesthetic of jumpy impermanence - that seem to define the show and Elliot Anderson's fundamental dilemma.
In the era of the Arab Spring and #Ferguson, it can't be accidental that the storytelling of Mr. Robot - with its unreliable narrator and non-linear approach to revealing character (for example, watch the way that the end of episode 6 flows into episode 7) - mirrors the experience of following hyperlinks in a (futile?) effort to get to the truth.
Pay attention to the way shots are framed. Slightly off-kilter. Visions of subway cars, corporate suites and abandoned spaces. Notice how the characters are lurking in the shadows of a shuttered Coney Island arcade or stumbling into an outer-borough shooting gallery. When we see faces - they are often slotted into slightly uncomfortable spots at the edge of the frame. Images seem to have been filtered through cellphones.
This is a show where the aesthetics and the experience of the internet - from how shots are framed and lit to how soul-piercing news can arrive with the bouncy sonic alert of a new email - are converging with traditional episodic TV.
And it isn't just the look and sound of the show (the soundtrack features Mac Quayle's totally electronic take on score as well as deft ironic choices, like episode 6's use of the Tangerine Dream cut that was also featured in 1983's Risky Business), Mr. Robot also captures the murky morality of an untrustworthy now...
Hollywood is in transition.
I imagine the Hollywood casting notice for Mr. Robot described Elliot Anderson as "a hacker with a gift for exploiting the cyber weaknesses of others - but his own weaknesses keep him strung-out on opiates - and barely hanging onto his gig at a strait-laced cyber security firm - as after hours he joins with an Anonymous-like hacker collective and struggles to find and hold onto his own identity..."
But that's not really it.
It isn't Elliot's hacking. It's not his relationship to his work, his fragile mental health, or his run-ins with corporate crime and drug crime, or even his struggles to unravel the secrets of his own identity that make this show so special...
What makes Mr. Robot compulsively watchable is its jittery (only sometimes fully-successful) re-imagination of network TV storytelling. Like Tony Soprano on HBO - Elliot Anderson is pushing boundaries on weekly ad-supported TV. He isn't always trustworthy or likable. But, just as in the 19th century photography “freed Western painting, once and for all, from its obsession with realism”, the internet (as seen in Mr. Robot) seems to be pushing the TV series away from the safe moorings of linear story and trustworthy narrators into new uncharted places.
UPDATE: Aug. 27th, 2015 Thanks to South East Asia-based Nicarauguan theater artist (and former student) Jaime Zuniga, I've just read Todd VanDerWerff's Aug. 26th, 2105 post to Vox about the unique look of Mr. Robot. Mr. VanDerWerff's post includes numerous screen-grabbed examples of how the visual aesthetic of Mr. Robot "gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows." Like me, Todd VanDerWerff sees intention behind the visual style of the show: Specifically, the show's shot composition often pushes characters away from what we've come to expect from traditional TV and movies based on the "rule of thirds" (places in the frame with "significant amounts of power"). Both Mr. VanDerWerff and I noticed that many of Mr. Robot's shots feature characters at the edgier edges. In my post from last week (above), I suggested the distinctive framing of shots in Mr. Robot might be part of an aesthetic informed by the internet - an intentional breaking of old rules shaped and colored by casual online filmmaking, selfies and cellphones snaps. Mr. VanDerWerff offers another possible explanation: "The system is so overwhelming that it's all the characters can do to stay in the frame. It keeps trying to push them out of it."
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