What makes compelling television? One critical component—at least for dramatic series—is a lively ensemble cast with a set of compelling characters whose different backgrounds, motivations, aspirations, and flaws writers can explore (either in groups or individually) over a course of episodes. Twists and turns are also important, as is placing characters at genuine risk.
Mr. Robot, which was created by Sam Esmail and airs on the USA Network, meets these characteristics. Like the once-popular Lost, it makes significant use of non-linear narrative and story telling, filling in significant swaths of back story only as it becomes absolutely necessary for the dramatic needs of particular episodes and for the first season as a whole. Non-linear story telling requires more investment from a viewer or reader (in my opinion), but it also helps “launch” an episode or an entire series more quickly than if writers or show runners first get bogged down in significant amounts of exposition. Furthermore, non-linear story telling allows writers to explore subtly complex aspects of character, situation, plot, and even ethics and social realities once viewers feel invested in the characters and their contexts.
Dexter also used non-linear story telling to great effect, especially in its first two seasons. Its writers also made great use of twists and sudden reveals, which were often anticipated (in hindsight) by the recurring backtracking and non-linear (but dramatically motivated) additions of information.
Indeed, Mr. Robot’s main character, Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek — and compare his performance here to his equally haunting portrayal of Snafu Shelton in The Pacific), reminds me a great deal of Dexter Morgan. Both are emotionally damaged and socially maladjusted—but nevertheless sympathetic—vigilantes who use their superior knowledge in a particular “technical area” to fight back against injustices. Both also create a private world that is constructed via voice-over narrative to which viewers have privileged access. Mr. Robot takes this a step further, however. While Dexter seems to be speaking to us (note his knowing glance toward us, the viewers, at the end of Dexter‘s opening title sequence), Elliot addresses us directly and knowingly so. What is peculiar is that while he speaks to us, Elliot seems to think that we are the (his) imaginary characters.
In retrospect, Elliot’s belief that we are imaginary characters in his head should cue viewers into just how ridiculously complex the representation of Elliot’s understanding of reality actually is—and how foolishly we take for granted the fiction that the camera never lies in our audiovisual media—given the most significant reveals of final episodes of the first season of this very fine series.
Mr. Robot also harkens back to Lost and Dexter, among other recent and current television programs that I have enjoyed (others include Deadwood and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), in its unrelentingly pessimistic view of human nature… or at least of human society. While this makes for compelling story telling, one has to wonder: Is this really all we want to (re)present on contemporary television, even among us adults? Does this really capture what we actually believe about our condition and our contexts? Do we really accept that our economics, our social relationships, our politics, and our technologies are all unseemly and spirit-crushing? Is it simply naïve to think that art—and I do believe film and even television can rise to that level—should be, or at least may be, celebratory and edifying, at least sometimes?
Let me be clear: I rarely reject a television show or movie simply because it is gritty or challenges simplistic ethical platitudes. On the contrary, ethical complexity is a hallmark I deeply appreciate. Furthermore, I enjoy different audiovisual text for many reasons besides plot and “surface” meaning. Character and character development, pithy and/or witty dialogue, the successful deployment of varied narrative devices, music and / as narrative, and visual density are all aspects of audiovisual media that I love. But gritty and challenging alone are also not enough.
Here’s the bottom line for me: if the gritty trend in television drama–especially on cable channels–suggest that there’s really no hope for change (personal or social), then why point out what must be by default glaringly obvious to every thoughtful viewer? Or is it that compelling, authentic, complicated and complicating–but ultimately hopeful–drama is simply too difficult to create (and market) in our society today?