Game of Thrones may be the frontrunner at the 2016 Emmy Awards for Outstanding Drama Series, but I predict Mr. Robot will have far greater influence on the future of television.
As Twin Peaks altered the face of TV in the 90s, and Hill Street Blues changed story structure in the 80s, Mr. Robot’s mind-altering head-trip will likely revolutionize small-screen storytelling for years to come.
It’s a shame it may take the end of the series for it to be accessible to a wider audience (and mainstream culture), but that’s the price we pay for innovation, as it’s a series that practically demands one long binge in order to appreciate its mastery (not unlike Arrested Development).
Sure, we’ve been awed by ambitious TV before. Chris Carter’s The X-Files demonstrated how complex a series could get with its own mythology; Joss Whedon’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer showed you didn’t have to sacrifice continuity to do it; but Lost is a reminder of how easy it is to leave the audience stranded with little payoff.
Mr. Robot operates on a different level - it pushes the boundaries of traditional storytelling in a way that not only shocks, not only alters one’s view of what’s already transpired, but does so only by revealing the complexity of character. With each new revelation, the audience’s relationship with the protagonist is altered, as is the protagonist’s relationship to the story.
Each turn unveils a complex layer of identity more tragic than the last, leaving both Mr. Robot and the viewer equally devastated. It’s this artistry that elevates the series above its rivals and will set a new bar for high-concept television for a long time to come.
Mr. Robot is a crime thriller on USA Network about an antisocial hacker named Elliot (the excellent Rami Malek), who finds himself entangled in a web of conspiracy that rails against many of the evils of our time - corporate America, greed, debt, drugs, disillusion, propaganda, and the uncertainty of our own identity.
On a basic consumer level, one can be thoroughly entertained by merely the relevance of its plot, or its suspenseful twists and turns. Crafty camera angles, obscure framing, and ominous score keep the viewer on edge. Its fractured storytelling demands undivided attention, with scenes abruptly cut short, with little or no explanation for lapses in time.
Mr. Robot pulls you into its world in a hypnotic, David Lynchian way; it unnerves you like David Fincher when he’s at his finest; and it shocks like early M. Night Shyamalan. But as twists unfold, the shock value pales in comparison to the ramifications written on the haunted faces of the central characters, as both they and the viewers process their tragedy. (The cemetery scene in Season 1 may be the most emotionally jarring of the series. Simply from shifting from Elliot’s point of view to that of his friend Angela, the despair is palpable for everyone onscreen, and for the viewer.)
The audience experiences the world of Mr. Robot through Elliot’s own eyes, and we are often thrown for a loop just as he is. Key information is so expertly withheld, it encourages multiple viewings for the sheer purpose of experiencing the story through this new lens. In a bold move, Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, carefully disseminates just enough intel to leave one with a singular new view of Mr. Robot’s reality, only to replace it the next episode for one even more disturbing. In less adept hands, this could be a risky gambit, appearing gimmicky at best, or off-putting at worst, but Esmail’s plot revelations are anything but cheap tricks – each one provides a new level of insight into Elliot, leaving us to grapple with his new reality right along with him.
On the surface, Mr. Robot is an expression of Generation X and Y’s contempt for the dystopia of modern America.
It accurately captures our distrust of multinational corporations, our malaise over a lack of social mobility, and our contempt for the moneyed class that thrives at the expense of everyone else. It explores the uncertainty of political and civil unrest. It directly speaks what many currently think about religion, inequality, consumerism, and the media. It echoes the activist uprising of Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks, and Anonymous. It resorts to vigilantism in an age when it feels as if the government has failed its citizens and can do little to course correct.
These social issues make the world of Mr. Robot relevant, but it’s merely the MacGuffin in order to explore the dualism of human nature, our yin and our yang, and the contradictory behaviors that result. Mr. Robot dares to tackle the fragility of the human psyche, the mental anguish, denial, and compartmentalization we use as defense mechanisms. It dares to expose truths too painful to acknowledge, and deconstruct stories we create in order to shield ourselves.
It’s about how disparate reality can be between two people of the same bloodline, class, or network - and even within the same person. It shows us how unreliable our interpretation of reality often is – how we see what we want to see, deny that which we don’t have the courage to confront, and create narratives to justify – or rationalize – our own misfortune, or misdeeds.
It is about the mental struggle in each of us, the delicate balance of right and wrong, selfish motivations versus the greater good, and the line between forgiveness and accountability.
It’s about the futility of life, and our infuriating inability to do anything about it.
It’s about the desperation and isolation of mental illness, and the frustration of medication designed to placate.
It questions our reality, our sanity, and our own moral compass.
Mr. Robot is, in essence, about the fracturing of the American mind, our uncertainty of the modern world, and how the tension of a socioeconomic system on the brink of collapse can drive us all to madness.
We are all Mr. Robot, programmed for the mundane motions of daily life. We walk around discontented, disconnected, disenfranchised, preferring to live within the comfortable illusions dictated by the voices in our head, denying the ugly truth about the world around us.