Mr. Robot (American TV Show 2015–19) — A fledgling auteur at work
Original. Unique. Innovative. These are words used to describe not necessarily something that is the greatest of all time but one that may have given the vibe of something you have never witnessed or heard or felt before. That is what Mr. Robot is. It has inspirations and homages; heavy influences and references. Everything in this would have some vague similarities in some old movie or a book or a play. But similarity does not negate its distinct quality. It stands apart in being unafraid and experimenting while not falling prey to a conventional means of storytelling. Yes, it has some glaring mistakes. Yes, it suffers from pacing issues and mismanagement of characters. But that is what elevates those good aspects of the show. You should watch this show not because you would see something perfect but the imperfections will be ingenuine.
Same But Different
Every single show on TV showers itself with political commentary. The subject of the show or that particular scene, none of that matters. Plugging in statements that challenge the status quo or anything that has been the case for generations or in support of the oppressed has been the norm. Those dialogues or storylines do embody the visionary of a progressive future. Harmonized digs and satire empower the character or the story more. But there is a line beyond which all of these are used as salvage tools to hide or as fillers to mask mediocre and lazy writing. That is when entertainment turns evangelical.
Everyone gives a stage to political issues of their time which is the same. But how can one avoid the blandness and monotony of this trend to endow something different? That is where Mr.Robot stands out among all the low-quality clones.
First and foremost, the concepts discussed here in this show are universal i.e., every country with an economy dependent on the private sector is automatically conscripted into the war waged in the show. Some fight by contributing and most others abstain and get on with their life. This rare inclusiveness by not trying to seek division by race, gender and religion is the prima facie evidence for convicting this show as being a unique criminal.
How does it discuss politics? Explicitly, subtextually and as a plot point. But the explicit part with dialogues is the most striking. The dialogues are not just exclusive to these discourses. They hide within them meta-references, motifs, and foreshadowings. Precious words are not wasted on idle conversations for the most part. These dialogues are delivered with an intention to be epic and their intentions are fulfilled. This is because the substance, which is the story behind them is solid enough to support them. Moreover, those words contain more than the truth. They are pointing out the atrocious manipulation which happens every day. It is not socialistic per se. But it is vehemently vociferous against modern capitalism. One can not deny the fact that even if all genders, races, and religions abandon their trivial differences and stand together, there will always be the real and indelible demarcation among humans; The rich vs the poor. This is what the show tries to fight with its discourses. It rallies everyone irrespective of their disagreements through its dialogues. It refrains from the usual identity polarization (which is not wrong and is as real as this issue but when it is part of plots which don’t demand them, that’s when it turns into indoctrination) and starts a unification movement.
Various real-world political events, speeches, and leaders are used as plot points to further the story. There is no obligatory servicing to anyone by disregarding its congruity. Whatever included in terms of politics is a perfect fit for the story. This enmeshes the fictional world to the real world even more.
This show is all about tech and corrupt conglomerates. But, these are sailed in a boat full of mentally hurt and abused characters, that is, by human vulnerabilities. None of the characters in this show are ordinary. Their incredibility is both positive and negative. Positively, they are all shrewd and astute. But that is not how the creator of the show chooses to unpack them. Their emotional ineptitude is the core of the show. It is from a point of their weakness we see them toppling an empire of legal crooks.
This is where we mention the central character of the show, Elliot Alderson. Unarguably, he is the most miserable character on TV. Your empathy levels for him multiply rapidly every episode and explode during a particular episode in season 4. He is also a prodigal genius. But this is not often seen in the foreground. First sympathize, then start empathizing and then finally he would have deserved your empathy and you can properly admire him and be inspired.
Most of the shows advertising itself with an overtly shrewd character or having one in a billion skillset, always are known for how flamboyant they are. Their flamboyance is plastered all over the screen and the cracks in them show their weakness. This blocks the viewer from connecting with the character. They are cool or badass. They are not human at all. It is not about overexposure of that ability but what you are presenting as the front for the character. This is one of the reasons this show stands apart.
A Movie Of Its Own
The ingenuity of the show is so unparalleled that it is worthy of being hailed as a forty-hour movie. From its cinematography to its aesthetics and realism, it has registered an indelible signature on all of it.
Eyes and Ears
Forget standing out among everything else. Even if everything else in your making is archaic, innovation in cinematography, editing music, and sound design can change the way the viewer perceives an age-old story. Those tools have the power of blessing novelty into even a lost cause.
So when you compliment screenplay which is already brimming with its unconventional subtleties, the result will be a cinematic experience.
The framing and specific camera angles have been the major part of its experimentations. The story is about Elliot but the camera does not always follow this. The characters are oftentimes pushed to the edge of the screen. This reiterates the importance of the society the world is set in more than the characters. This dual-mode of storytelling brings the viewer closer to the show rather than disenfranchising them.
Sometimes odd angles are chosen during a conversation or movement of characters inside a house. Some of these emphasize the loneliness of Elliot. Others may signify things cannot be interpreted unless you watch till the end, the interpretation cannot be revealed. But it is commendable that these oddities seem appropriate in retrospection.
Background score and songs in the show are more than just fillers or tension builders. They are guides to our thoughts and feelings. Synthesized music was predominantly used. It is difficult to gauge the degree of music was used. There were sort of spasmodic points in the show which needed some tense music. Then it is followed by scenes without haste. Then suddenly unforeseeable events wash over which are immediately followed by either regret or triumph or shock or other human emotions. So there are a plethora of unreliable tonal shifts that hop from one surprise to another. In this maze of mysteries, only music can help you out. Thus, the writers use music as a compass to direct you rather than to accentuate a scene. When words feel superfluous and the scene has done enough, the final piece of the puzzle is music. There are abrupt stops in music or songs in the background. This a truly a remarkable idea to sustain the tension. Also a reminder of what the character is going through when the plot is in its fledgling stages and these implicit hints are necessary.
Humans and machines are the two underpinnings of the show. While realism (which in itself turned out to be unorthodox) in hacks and many hacking and other political events are brought out by sticking to whatever happened in reality and dramatizing without compromising the truth Humanity is served through psychology. That service is projected through acting. And the caricature of the character, Elliot Alderson, is validated by Rami Malek.
There is no disrespect to other actors in the show. There are new ones added every season, having a major eccentric screen presence during that time. They manage to hack into the viewers within a single season. It may be their accent or new sketch of a cliched character in this art form or friendly fiendishness. In places where the pacing of the show struggles relatively, these actors manage to entertain you.
There is also the villain. The role offered to the actor playing the bad person is quite a challenging one. There is a duality to it which is difficult to differentiate. Moreover, there is a circular arc containing Elliot and the antagonist. Without delving into the details, assuredly one can say this circle is them following their separate path but yet connected through their performance. They have to hold the fort down and they managed to more than defend it through the sieges of few bad character arcs.
But none of them is a match to the level of pathos Rami Malek managed to pull through his performance. Remember, he plays one of the saddest roles on TV. But desolateness cannot be achieved without a chasm of complexity hidden. And that chasm actually what makes this whole show as suspenseful and thrilling as it is. He has to make us believe and he has to achieve self-deception too. These two polarized acts need to be achieved by the same person. Malek does this without a scratch. You can feel his despair through the screen. The fourth wall has been broken. But not because of him talking straight to the camera, no. Because he has managed to encapsulate and submit an emotional thesis on absolute loneliness.
Realism and Gimmicks — Treading on The Finer Details
As stated earlier, verisimilitude is the top priority of Sam Esmail, the creator of the show. First of all, hacking and other computer-related points of the show are something a real-life programmer or computer enthusiasts would appreciate. The terms and devices thrown around will not be familiar to the average person. But unfamiliarity does not impede the viewing experiences. Everything around it only pushes you to learn about those terms.
This is followed in its depiction of politics. From the steadfast synchronization with major political events and issues to using names of Presidents and inexplicable use of their voices and superimposing characters into meetings of world leaders. This is gimmicky not to mitigate damage but elevate the engagement of viewers.
Why just stop at that? He establishes himself as a fledgling auteur by placing easter eggs in codes and even audio. The levels of trouble you should put yourself through to decipher the hidden references in those codes is worth it.
This is not restricted to codes. Going back to the discussion about the framing technique used in the show, it is evident that space is used for the world as well as meta-references, easter eggs and motifs like these. The pedantic care taken to assimilate all of this into the show is exceptional. They are not just empty homages or nods. They are somehow invariably connected to the characters or the story or both. They make you understand the show better if you spot them first.
Three prominent episodes exemplify the auteurist behind the show. All of them demand an essay of their own. They suck our attention to the fullest and the only feeling we get is hazardous levels of anxiety and tension.
Technical prowess in each of them is a case study for filmmakers while simply unforgettable experience for everyone else. If you ask whether they were necessary to the story. They are pivots of the season. Before and after them, either the show was suffering and recalibrating itself or something unexpected was going to happen. So to steady the ship or increase the effect of subterfuge, these were unavoidable. Whether you like it as a show or you study it, these three episodes are enough for you to forget about everything else in it, both good and bad.
Setting all of these reasons which make the show great aside, we shine the light at one last thing in Mr. Robot which is something you will always expect in other shows if this affects you the manner it should.
The Title Card. Every episode, the positioning of the title card is immaculate regarding the laying of foundation to the mood. As soon as it hits the screens, after the names of the network and production house, you know something has astounded you or a follow up to the astonishment at the end of the previous episode. One of the episodes has a car driving on a road at night. This is filmed from the top angle. As the car moves forward, the road ahead goes backward. The title card slides along with it. This is one of the examples. There is more exclusive intelligence similar to this among the other 44 episodes. This may not be tantalizing enough but imagine the meticulousness and depth the show would be having, if the placement of a mere title card is provided with an inordinate amount of care.
This show is underrated for a reason. This is not for everyone. Along the way, some characters became obsolete or an obstacle. But that’s not the reason why the accesiblity has been limited to a small portion of viewers. Marketing is a ubiquitous issue with all the under-rated shows. But more than promotions, these types of content is an acquired taste. It does not mean you have to watch multiple shows of the same making style to enjoy this. One needs to gestate patience to appreciate this masterpiece. For example, even though something keeps happening every fifteen minutes in the show during the first season, as a whole, it is not until a certain episode, any viewer will be hooked in with a surprising twist. But until you reach that point, it is just about a sad hacker with vigilante justice as the objective.
The above observation may not apply for everybody who has managed to complete the entire show, but it is undeniable that people are hesitant to completely embrace whatever they are not used to. And this is something every dry viewer who has been yearning with a thirst for art different from the boring and safe patterned storytelling will espouse.