If you spend any substantial amount of time online, you’ve probably had that experience where it feels like every tweet, thinkpiece, and Tumblr GIF is bombarding you—nay, shaming you—into watching the latest Great TV show. Just this year alone, you’ve probably seen the Internet’s hype machine rev up for Empire, Better Call Saul, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, iZombie, Daredevil, UnReal, and maybe even Togetherness, Fortitude, and god forbid, Bloodline. Those are just the newbies, tossed into the very long queue of shows people talk about but you’ll probably never watch. Such is life in 2015 amid what we’ve now come to experience as #PeakTV (pro tip: don’t Google that; if there’s anything worse than a buzzword, it’s a buzzword beaten to death by a bunch of critics and culture writers).
Arguably no show has received more support from this hype machine in 2015 than USA Network’s Mr. Robot, an inward-looking hacker thriller and commentary on the late capitalist, globalized world. And as we prepare for the Season 1 finale tonight (it was preempted last week due to unintentional similarities to the tragic murder of the TV journalists near Roanoke, Virginia), probably no show is as deserving of that hype.
However, I’m not here just to tell you why you should be watching Mr. Robot—maybe you’ll like its portrayal of hacking, maybe you’ll adore its masterful direction and score, or maybe you’ll just find star Rami Malek super, duper, oh-good-god dreamy. All that’s absolutely true and you should find a way to catch up on Season 1’s 10 episodes. But instead, I want to concentrate on something slightly different, which is why I think people are just so in love with the show, and not in that “I need to be part of the conversation and whip up a take” way. Simply put: We really, really enjoy the thrill of not knowing what in the hell is going on.
In a world where promotional material for shows leaks out at the pace of a geyser, where you can find weekly recaps about hundreds of shows, where showrunners and stars are out here in the press “answering our burning questions” on the reg, and where a random fan theory on Reddit passes as fresh content, we’re inundated with information about the shows we love, oftentimes to the point where there is no mystery, plot-wise, experience-wise, or "conversation"-wise. For all TV’s attempts to create the moments that have us chatting at the water cooler (physical or digital), so many of those moments are telegraphed so baldly as MOMENTS that it’s hard not to just politely fist-pump or reactively, emptily type “!!!!!” on Twitter.
As such, while Mr. Robot has succeeded at a lot of things this summer—namely bringing Carly Chaikin back into my life—its biggest triumph is how consistently it produced moments that felt organically shocking, confusing, awe-inspiring, or some combination of all three.
Some of those moments have stemmed directly from the plot, be it revelations regarding Elliot's (Malek’s disaffected, dysfunctional hero) past, unfortunate consequences of his crusade against the glibly named Evil Corp and some of the small-time crooks in his life, or late-season acknowledgements that the show is, in fact, screwing with us in the way we thought it was. Yet, many of these wonderful moments have had nothing to do with the crusade to take down Evil Corp or Elliot’s relationship to the mysterious titular character played by Christian Slater. Instead, it’s been the little things: the way in which the title card appears superimposed into the scenery, how the sniveling antagonist Tyrell (Martin Wallstrom) shares entire scenes with his wife speaking only in Swedish and Danish, or how shots linger just long enough to make a sleeve of blank CD-Rs seem aesthetically relevant or to pick up the squeaking sound of characters walking up the stairs.
Moreover, even when the show revels in the confusion brought upon by its unreliable narrator and his Fight Club-esque personality disorder, it has found a way to do so without sacrificing the characters or their relationships with one another. When the previous two episodes dove deep into the true identity of Mr. Robot and his relationship to Elliot, the show treated the information as significant, but with an awareness of the audience’s intelligence and its investment in Elliot and those around him. It’s that second part that shows beholden to "gotcha" twists always get wrong. But we don’t just want to be swerved; we want the characters we love to be OK, to find the truth, to fall in love, etc.
Mr. Robot isn’t thrilling just because it screws with perspective or makes jokes about d-bags on Facebook. The show feels thrilling because it, led by showrunner Sam Esmail, confidently and consistently approaches that story in ways that are abnormal for contemporary TV. People are responding to that, and chances are you would too.
Sure, by "people" I’m still referring to a small sliver of the TV-viewing audience (though you torrenters sure do love it!). And sure, the response is probably aided by the fact that the show airs on USA Network, a major cable player that has never been given its critical due and that many folks would never perceive as the spot for The Next Great TV Drama.
Nonetheless, Mr. Robot is a genuinely exceptional, singular, specific show that also happens to include some mind-melting surprises. The show’s confidence and specificity means that although it has certainly received the kind of all-encompassing coverage that swallows so many of its peers, the cottage industry of Internet deconstructions won’t really disrupt its perspective, style, or topical concerns, at least not for the first season.
Believe the hype or not, but you will be legitimately surprised by Mr. Robot, and that should be enough to get you watching.