Review: 'Mr. Robot' premiere avoids the sophomore slump
When a TV show becomes a phenomenon in its first season like Mr. Robot did(*), there's always some concern leading into the second. Will the elements that made it distinct at first still feel special after we've had a year to get used to its tricks? Do this world and these characters have enough story in them to last many seasons, or did the creative team exhaust all their ideas early on? Are we about to get a sophomore slump like True Detective, or a sophomore surge like Fargo?
(*) A critical and online phenomenon, anyway. Ratings for airings on USA (which is still paying the bills for the show) were small throughout.
Across Mr. Robot's first hiatus, those concerns felt more amplified than normal. No, Rami Malek wasn't likely to become less riveting in his second go-around as damaged computer genius Elliot Alderson. And the show's story of Elliot's vigilante hacker group fsociety trying to retake control of a broken world feels even more resonant in light of all the politicial, social, and financial insanity that's gripped our own world in the 10 months since season 1 ended(*). But at the same time, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail was new to television, and while he had blended up pieces of a half-dozen movies and TV shows (most notably Fight Club) into something that blew the cobwebs off their respective cliches, the show was the rare Peak TV drama more interesting for its directing than its writing, and now Esmail was planning to pull a Soderbergh and direct every episode of the second season despite a scant resume in that area? And though Esmail insists that he wanted the audience to realize before Elliot did that the title character, played by Christian Slater, was just a Tyler Durden-esque alternate personality encouraging Elliot's most anarchic impulses, the question of what was and wasn't real fueled a lot of discussion about the show in the first season. Those 10 episodes were often riveting, but in a very precarious way suggesting things could crumble in an instant.
(*) The season finale was delayed a week because it featured a character committing suicide in the middle of a live TV interview, which was deemed too close to the recent on-camera murders of a TV news reporter and her cameraman. In preparing this review, I actually needed to ask a friend to remind me which public shooting it was, because there have been so damn many of them since that tragedy in Virginia.
But while Wednesday night's two-hour season premiere — the first hour of which got a very Mr. Robot-appropriate debut, popping up on social media Sunday night with no advance warning, then vanishing a few hours later — opens up depicting a world in tatters after the stunt Elliot and fsociety pulled off in erasing billions of dollars in personal debt, the show itself remains in superb shape.
If anything, Elliot's knowledge of who and what Mr. Robot is (his unchained id wearing the face of his dead father) has eliminated one of the more gimmicky aspects of the first season and refocused on the show's greatest strength in Malek's haunted performance and how well-drawn Elliot is as a character. Instead of having to dance around Mr. Robot's true nature, the premiere uses Elliot's awareness of it to dive even further inside his psyche, and since the question of his mental state was always a far more compelling story to me than fsociety's mission(*), this is welcome. It unleashes Slater to play darker and colder as Mr. Robot fights back against Elliot's attempts to delete him from his mental operating system, and it places even more weight on Malek's shoulders, and though his frame is narrow, his charisma and intensity are mighty enough to handle everything Esmail piles on him.
(*) Some excellent TV critics on Twitter last week made a few anti-Robot arguments, which essentially boil down to 1)Elliot is the only character with real dimensionality on the show, and 2)The show doesn't work if you don't agree with its critique with all that's gone wrong with modern life. I'll perhaps concede the former, while not caring because Malek is just that good (and none of the supporting characters are being given more to do than they should; this isn't Dexter), but I've never bought into the latter. The show wants us to care first and foremost about Elliot, and Elliot only vaguely seems to believe in fsociety's mandate, and has been largely pushed into it by the Mr. Robot alter and by his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin, who's the most complicated character after Elliot). You can, like fans of Fight Club (or even American Psycho) have often done, buy into the ethos most often vocalized by the charismatic main character, or you can see an obvious skepticism from the work itself. As it is, when Darlene reappears in the premiere, it's to tell the expanded fsociety membership that their big caper actually made everything worse, not better.
Through these first two hours, at least, Esmail also continues to acquit himself well behind the camera. The first shot to carry the show's now-familiar visual signature — a face appearing just barely in frame, or in some other way defying basic rules of cinematic grammar — doesn't come up until near the end of the premiere's second half, but Esmail has other tricks up his sleeve. As he did with the mysterious epilogue of season 1 — where Evil Corp exec Price (Michael Cristofer, who continues to give great speech) attended a swank gathering with apparent fsociety ally Whiterose (BD Wong) — for instance, Esmail has a knack for constructing single-take shots that don't call attention to their continuous nature until after they're done. They're never about showing off, but about maintaining the uncomfortable mood of a scene, often making you feel like you're trapped along with Elliot, Darlene, and their childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) in a world were all our worst anxieties and fears have only been magnified.
And when scenes don't look like they would have last year, it's for a thematic reason: because Elliot is trying so hard to avoid repeating the patterns that led him to give in so much to Mr. Robot and participate in fsociety's massive hack. He wants to be different, so the show looks different — for now, at least. But it still has the same feeling, and it still has Malek's performance at the center of it making everything work, no matter how familiar or ill-conceived any ideas might seem in lesser hands.
Two episodes (one of which many of you may have seen) isn't a big sample size to judge whether Mr. Robot will avoid the sophomore slump. But they're a very promising start, and a continuation of all that made the series so fascinating a year ago.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Since the premiere's first hour was only available for a limited window, and since I'll be doing a more detailed review of both episodes after they air on Wednesday night, let's save any real spoilers for the comments of that Wednesday post, okay? If you want to share general impressions of the first hour, go for it, but keep it vague about what is and isn't revealed about Wellick, fsociety, Evil Corp., etc.