(Note: this article is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. If it makes you want to check the show out for the first time, I would recommend reading as little else about it as possible and just jumping right in from the first episode.)
According to some television scholars (yes, that is a real title), we are currently living through a “Golden Age of Television.”
Starting in and around the year 2000, the television industry changed for the better, with visionary creators taking the medium of TV into bigger and bolder directions.
The Sopranos. The Wire. Breaking Bad. Mad Men. Game of Thrones. These are some of the main shows that get highlighted as examples of television’s current Golden Age.
Now, there has been some debate in the industry about whether the Golden Age is still ongoing, and more specific pontificating about whether the rise of Netflix and other streaming services have killed it outright.
I’m not here today to argue whether this Golden Age is alive or dead. But what I am doing, however, is making the case that one less-discussed show in particular deserves to be considered among the other titans in this category — and might have even laid the groundwork for an entirely new Golden Age to come in the future.
That show is Mr. Robot.
An underappreciated masterpiece
When it comes to critical acclaim, Mr. Robot already does have its fair share.
In 2016 it won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series — Drama, while Rami Malek won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and Christian Slater has a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor – Series, Miniseries or Television Film. The show has also won or been nominated for so many other awards that it would take ages to actually type them all out here.
And yet, the show is still criminally underappreciated.
Unlike Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot never really broke into the mainstream like it should have.
There was buzz about it during it’s first season, some of which carried over early into the second, but after that the show just kind of... disappeared from greater pop culture. The final season’s episodes didn’t have that “must-watch” kind of aura where everyone eagerly awaited each week’s iteration and then flocked to social media afterwards to leave their reactions and thoughts.
The entire series aired on the USA Network, which isn’t a particularly big or well-known channel, so that likely played a role.
However, those who watched Mr. Robot from the very beginning and stuck with it knew that they were watching something special.
When sorting all television episodes by “User Rating” on IMDB, there are four Mr. Robot episodes in the Top 50, with two of them tied for 2nd at 9.9 stars.
What is Mr. Robot about?
Mr. Robot isn’t the type of television show that is easy to describe, but I’ll try to describe it here as succinctly as possible.
The story revolves around a character named Elliott (Malek), a young vigilante hacker who gets recruited by a hacktivist group called fsociety to help take down a company called E Corp, which is an all-powerful multinational conglomerate that dabbles in everything from banking to electronics to the energy industry. The company is immensely powerful, and uses that power to influence world politics in their favor. Fsociety, seeing the plight of the average person and knowing the corruption of E Corp, devises a plan to attack the company that they believe would help save the world.
Elliot already had grand dreams of revolution and changing a broken system, but joining fsociety to take down E Corp is also personal: Elliot’s father died from leukemia after a chemical leak at one of E Corp’s facilities, but the company used their wealth and power to cover up the incident and quash any legal action against them.
While Mr. Robot is a show about hacking, it’s not really about hacking. Even though hacking plays a large part in the plot, it’s mostly as a device to further a different story.
More than anything else, Mr. Robot is a story about Elliot, and the odyssey that he undertakes as the show progresses.
It’s not unlike what happens in Breaking Bad — that show isn’t about cooking meth, it’s about Walter White and his steady transformation from a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher into the drug kingpin known as Heisenberg; the meth is mostly a convenient plot vehicle for his character arc.
That being said, though, Mr. Robot has a lot more to say than to just tell a story about one person. The show has a surprisingly human and emotional side, with incredible messages about human connection, including how human connection is influenced by our current technologies and the world we live in.
It’s here, the show’s emotional side, where it really and truly shines.
Elliot (a cold, socially anxious loner who struggles connecting with others and is more comfortable on his laptop than around people) is the centerpiece, obviously, but Mr. Robot’s cast of supporting characters is deep and fleshed out and, above all else, human.
Even if the world of hacking doesn’t interest you (it didn’t interest me when I began watching the show, and it still doesn’t now), don’t let that deter you from digging into everything else that Mr. Robot has to offer.
So, what makes Mr. Robot so special?
Remember what I was saying earlier, about the Golden Age of Television and those other renowned shows?
Well, it’s safe to assume that Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, is quite familiar with them — and a lot more else in the world of film and television. Esmail, 42, has related degrees from both New York University Tisch School of the Arts and the AFI Conservatory, where he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in directing in 2004.
When you watch Mr. Robot, it’s incredibly clear that Esmail is a true student of film and television. The show is absolutely overflowing with references and obvious influences, from shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos to heist films to psychological thrillers to — and this is not a joke — 1980s sitcoms. You can practically see what Esmail knows and how he’s applying it to his show.
And this is one of the big areas where Mr. Robot truly stands out and cements itself as one of television’s great works: it’s creative risk-taking, genre-bending and mastery of the medium.
This show pushes the boundaries of television in ways that I’ve never seen, including in its Golden Age contemporaries. Let me try to illustrate this point a little better.
One episode in Season 3, titled fittingly as “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00,” is designed to look like it was shot in a single continuous take, like the 2015 Oscar-winner for Best Picture Birdman, or the most iconic scenes from Children of Men. It makes for a captivating hour of TV that feels more like a movie than a show.
Another episode is shot almost entirely without dialogue. Brilliantly, the episode opens with one character telling another “It’s cool, dude. We don’t have to talk.” It later ends with one different character telling another “It’s time we talked.” In between, no words are spoken, with the plot of the episode (an elaborate heist that takes up the vast majority of the runtime) being advanced through visual storytelling. Instead of feeling gimmicky, it actually comes across as a perfect fit for the part of the story being told (making a lot of noise probably isn’t a good idea during a heist), while also being an impressive feat of filmmaking.
Oh, and the name of this particular episode? “405 Method Not Allowed,” which not only reflects the show’s fifth episode of Season 4 and the lack of dialogue but also an actual type of computer error.
Most notable of these examples, however, is “407 Proxy Authentication Required.”
Filmed entirely in the same building and set up like a five-act play (including title cards for each act), Malek delivers one of the single-best acting performances that you’ll ever watch. The performances from the two main supporting actors (I won’t name the actors, for spoiler-y reasons) are equally gripping and up to the task. Each of the five acts also corresponds with a bigger concept that ties into the content of the episode, something that made my jaw drop when I read about it. I still get goosebumps when I think about this episode.
I can’t predict the future, but I just can’t see how other TV showrunners could watch something like Mr. Robot and not feel a spark of creativity about what they too could accomplish — or, at the very least, feel that the bar has been raised for the medium, and that raising it even further will require a similar level of progression.
To say that Mr. Robot is Esmail’s magnum opus would be an understatement. He created, wrote and executive produce the entire series, he personally directed 38 of it’s 45 episodes (starting in season two and going to the end), and — if all of that wasn’t enough — he even loosely based the character of Elliot on himself, including both having social anxiety and both living in Washington Township in New Jersey.
For Esmail, Mr. Robot is personal on a deep level. and that level of care and dedication is abundantly clear when you watch the show.
Where can someone check this show out?
If you’ve made it this far and your interest in watching Mr. Robot for the first time has been sufficiently piqued, you’re in luck: the entire series is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
I guarantee you’ve never seen anything else quite like it.