Sometimes, timing is everything.
Back in the oughts, I bought the novel “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’d heard it was extraordinary, and I knew Ishiguro was a master of pathos and slowly accumulating detail. But after a few tries, reading the first pages with dogged effort, I put it down. I just wasn’t that into it.
Cut to two years later, when I picked up the book again and couldn’t stop. This time around, I found it to be an elegant, heartbreaking story of youth, mortality, denial, and science. I can still feel a chill at its sad tidings about the future. For some reason, I was more open to that kind of doom-ridden story at that moment in time.
Often in the arts, it all comes down to timing and mood, to some mysterious combination of the piece itself — the book, the album, the painting, the TV series — and where you are in your life. Sometimes people pretend that judging a show is an objective process, but of course there are always powerful subjective elements at play. I remember finding “Six Feet Under” terribly mannered at first, and then falling hard for it, to the point where it’s now in my canon of all-time great TV series.
Which brings me to a USA drama called “Mr. Robot,” which returns for its second season on July 13. The show has won a bunch of awards, including a Golden Globe and a Critic’s Choice for best drama. And I’m assuming it will get a lot of Emmy nominations when they’re announced on July 14. This year, I was on the judges’ panel to pick nominees for the Gotham Awards’ first-ever TV prize, and I heard passionate appeals by the other judges in favor of “Mr. Robot” (which later won the category). I remember getting frustrated at the enormous enthusiasm for a show I hadn’t liked at all. What are all these other people seeing that I’m missing?
When “Mr. Robot” premiered last summer, I watched the first two episodes and was not persuaded. I just wasn’t that into it. The show, created by Sam Esmail, seemed like a forced attempt to be relevant in the post-Edward Snowden world, to deliver one more post-“Lost” TV show about a broad and mysterious conspiracy. The premise seemed overblown, as a troubled cyber-security expert named Elliot hooked up with a secret group of hacktivists to bring down one of the largest corporations in the world, E-Corp, which Elliot not-so-subtly called Evil Corp. Set in New York City, the atmosphere of the show — the gray visuals, the off-center framing, Mac Quayle’s creepy electronic soundtrack — felt relentlessly grim and artificial. As the morphine-addicted Elliot, Rami Malek was a twitchy, wide-eyed empty vessel in a hoodie.
I was also put off by the constant use of voice-over, a hackneyed device that frequently serves as a cheat — as a way of telling viewers instead of showing them. Annoyingly, Elliot was coolly narrating every step for us in each episode. And with a voice-over, a screenwriter can patch up gaping plot holes, a few of which I saw on “Mr. Robot.”
As the titular fellow, an enigmatic underground leader who pulls Elliot into his pack, Christian Slater was grating with his seemingly endless, simplistic anti-capitalist rants. A little Slaterian cynicism goes a long way. Meanwhile one of the bad guys, an E-Corp drone named Tyrell, seemed like an unimaginative twist on “American Psycho,” a villain as broody and hollow as the show’s hero. Technically, Slater plays “Mr. Robot,” but Elliot and Tyrell seemed pretty robotic, too.
Cut to me going back at “Mr. Robot” this summer, still trying to figure out why it is so celebrated. And cut to me looking sheepish, realizing that “Mr. Robot” is special indeed.
Yes, the atmosphere is thick; yes, some of the central characters are overly muted or, like Slater and Carly Chaikin’s high-strung hacker, overly expressive; yes, the themes about our alienated society are big and obvious; yes, the voice-over is overdone.
But those qualities don’t spoil the show, and I now see that, on the contrary, they are among its strengths. They bring us further inside Elliot’s introverted, drug-addled, paranoid mind, which is where the drama really takes place. As much as “Mr. Robot” is about our information-crammed and digitally interconnected world, it is also about the resulting loneliness, powerlessness, and distrust of one man.
The production’s sleek artifices and creepy soundtrack are Elliot’s projections, the way he sees and hears the city and the people with whom he crosses paths. His voice-over, too, is less about explaining things to the viewer and more about showing us the workings of his mental illness, the ways he twists and distorts his perceptions. He is a very interestingly unreliable narrator. And the more closely I watch Malik, the more I can see beyond his glazed, gaunt exterior into his character’s exhausted soul, his desperation, his vulnerability. At this point, I can’t imagine any other actor in the role.
So here I am with a mea culpa. “Mr. Robot” isn’t perfect, but it’s far from the dismissible piece of dullness that I initially thought I saw. At this point, now that I understand and feel the first season’s dusky electricity, I am eagerly awaiting the second season. I’m just that into it.