It is my firm belief that Mr. Robot is one of the greatest shows to have ever graced the TV screen. What separates it from the endless stream of mediocre police procedurals and contrived post-apoc dystopias is the fact that it is made with a clear respect for the conventions of film making in mind. Whereas most TV has shunned the aesthetic aspect of what is, at its core, a visual medium and taken to filming every scene as if it were part of a documentary or news report, Sam Esmail and his crew have consistently delivered crisp, detailed imagery that provides insight into the characters’ predicament, the course of the story, and the state of the world, both in-universe and outside of it. Mr. Robot takes full advantage of both its format and its medium in order to tell a tale of mental illness and socio-economic alienation and is a breath of fresh air for every cinephile who has grown disillusioned by the state of long form storytelling on TV.
Perhaps the most apt illustration of Mr. Robot‘s brilliance is the opening of this season’s second episode. It’s a long pre-opening credits fake-out that shows the protagonist, Elliot Alderson, trying to reintegrate himself into the corporate lifestyle and to right the wrongs that he commit during his drug-fulled schizophrenic episodes that harken back to the duality of the narrator in Fight Club. This part of the episode is comprised of a fast-paced montage set over cheery music, interrupted only by Elliot’s periodic internal ramblings. He seemingly condemns his prior ideas and positions and turns his back on his old cause because he has “grown up” and entered the real world. We see him wholly consumed by his work at E-Corp, once a mortal enemy of his. He blends in with the crowd and does his best to appear normal, to fit in. In contrast to the rest of the show, the camera during these scenes shows Elliot as part of the group, he’s framed alongside other people, moving through the street like anyone else would, whereas the usual shtick of the show is to illustrate loneliness and isolation through the clearest cinematic barrier of them all – putting the character in a frame of his own, off-center at that. There’s also more movement than usual, the editing is quick and snappy while the average shot length throughout the show is relatively large.
And then the title screen comes in and Elliot realizes that his efforts at being a regular, happy person are completely futile. The camera pans out, the depth of field is compressed to the point of only clearly focusing on Elliot and the montage begins once again, this time it is much more silent, with more voice-over, as the protagonist is shown pumping himself full of medicine and crying of loneliness in a scene that is a clear throwback to the first season.
Yes, this is a scenario that we have all seen before. But that’s exactly what makes it beautiful, it takes a sequence that we are already familiar with on a subconscious level and applies it to the given situation in a well-executed and visually appealing way. Instead of attempting to insulate itself from film, Mr. Robot uses it as a stepping stone on its own journey through a genre that is both remarkably familiar and oddly distant. And this is exactly what shows should be doing – using cinema as a reference point. There is amazing potential in TV and there have certainly been some remarkable efforts as of late to bring it up to par with the very best of films (the first season of True Detective, Breaking Bad and the parts of Mindhunter that were directed by David Fincher), but the overall quality of television shows is, to put it lightly, quite unsatisfactory. Game of Thrones has captured the popular interest by appealing to the lowest common denominator and shunning its literary roots in pursuit of further spectacle. In the process, the show has lost all semblance of logical continuity, and that’s not even mentioning the abysmal scripts that the admittedly talented cast has had to make do with for the past two or three season. The same can be said of The Walking Dead, another ridiculously popular show, and its reliance on melodrama and one of the most frustrating tropes of them all, the idiot plot. These are some of the most jarring examples, to be sure, but they are also the most popular ones among the shows that go for something serious rather than existing as a playground for comedy actors and stand-up comedians (to be clear, this is not a jab at comedy shows, they are a different beast entirely and cannot be examined in the same light as regular television).
Nonetheless, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future. There have been some impressive efforts over the past year (Taboo, Legion) that have managed to stand out despite the constant onslaught of garbage. More and more film directors are trying their hand at creating their own series and this migration could be the start of an intriguing new breed of television shows with film sensibilities and an artist’s steady hand behind the wheel.