2016’s Top TV: Mr Robot Season Two

mr-robot-season-2
Copyright: USA Network

Though it has a rather daft title, Mr Robot is one of the best new shows on TV.  Its first season was thrillingly tense, fast-paced and confidently stylish. Its second was slower, less eventful and divided opinion, but I still loved it. But before we get to that, here’s a spoiler-free introduction to this gripping conspiracy-thriller.

The series follows Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek), a lonely cyber-security engineer with a drug habit who prefers getting to know people by hacking into their emails and social media profiles than by talking to them face-to-face. We join him just before he meets Mr Robot (Christian Slater), a charismatic anarchist who persuades Elliot to join his hacking group fsociety, which plans to hack into E Corp, the biggest corporation in America, and erase everyone’s debt.

Mr Robot is a show that wears its influences on its sleeve. Elliot and Mr Robot’s fuck-society, boo-consumerism dialogue often sounds sounds like it’s come from Fight Club but tweaked and updated for the 21st century, its portrayal of sociopathic wealthy businessmen is reminiscent of American Psycho and its precise, carefully-composed shots are like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.

It also has an interesting gimmick: Elliot speaks to us and looks at us (via the camera) because he sees us as an imaginary friend that he created. When we’re with him, we see things from his point of view. He calls E Corp ‘Evil Corp’, so whenever the company is mentioned in his presence, he hears everyone calling it Evil Corp. His paranoia, anxiety and drug-induced hallucinations affect the show’s look and blur the line between what’s real and what’s in his head.

We also follow his oldest friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), E Corp employee Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his cold, calculating wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), all of whom have their own issues to deal with that Elliot doesn’t know about.

Season one was a tough time for poor Elliot. While preparing for his big hack, his personal life fell apart and he became increasingly paranoid and unsure of his own mental stability. He also felt betrayed after we failed to warn him about a twist that became very obvious to us but was a devastating shock for him. He doesn’t seem to realise that it would be literally impossible for us to tell him anything, but I guess we shouldn’t hold that against him.

The second season began with Elliot struggling to recover from his mental breakdown, working on his complex relationship with Mr Robot and dealing with some severe memory loss. The rest of fsociety were struggling to move forward without their leader, Angela was struggling with her frightening new bosses, the Wellicks were struggling to stay together, and FBI agent Dominique DiPierro was introduced to hunt down the hackers but struggled to cope with the overwhelming mess that she’d stumbled into.

Every character was lost, confused and losing hope, while viewers were left in the unique position of having the main character of a show they’re watching intentionally hiding important plot information from them because he no longer trusted them.

All this made for a very different second season, much slower than the first, more conspiracy than thriller. It risked alienating viewers as it put more focus on characters who know far more than they’re letting on, whose scenes were often cryptic, vague and surreal. It was even frustrating at times as it very successfully tried to make us as disoriented and unsure of what was real as its protagonist.

According to Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, season one was originally the first act of a film screenplay that expanded into a TV show, so this season is act two – but only the first part of act two, the part where there’s a lot of setup and plenty of back-story but not a lot of plot progression. By the time we finally have a fairly clear understanding of everyone’s goals and motivations and what exactly is going on, the season’s over.

However, there was plenty to love about this year’s episodes.The lengthy scenes showing Elliot struggling with his sanity allowed the show to really go nuts (ahem) with its visuals, which were already bold and inventive, and gave us a deeper understanding of its complicated protagonist.

The show maintained and intensified its melancholy, stifling atmosphere with its trademark mixture of Mac Quayle’s distorted electronic droning and bleeping on the soundtrack and the way it frequently films characters in the bottom corners of the frame, overwhelmed by their surroundings.

Occasionally, this dour mood would be interrupted by the abrupt bursts of shocking violence and stomach-churning tension that made season one so propulsive. Few shows can create such a strong feeling of unease and dread as Mr Robot can when it wants to.

The season one episodes ‘Brave Traveller’ (or “eps1.5br4ve-trave1er.asf” to give it its proper title. Yes, the show’s episode titles are fake filenames, which must have really confused anyone who torrented it), ‘White Rose’ (“eps1.7wh1ter0se.m4v”) and ‘Mirroring’ (“eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.qt”) would have easily made my 2015’s Top TV list if I’d seen them when they premiered. They feature moments of unrelenting tension, out-of-nowhere shocks and a feeling of imminent doom that borders on apocalyptic, all rooted in the small-scale personal drama of a mentally-troubled hacker. There are similar scenes in season two…but saying where exactly would spoil the surprise.

Luckily, the show didn’t lose its wry sense of humour amongst all the gloom; one surprisingly sweet scene this season showed Elliot dreaming of his ideal, but impossible, future where everyone he knows finds peace and happiness and joins together to support him – its soundtrack is a lullaby version of Basket Case.

It’s worth mentioning again how good Mr Robot‘s lead actor is. Rami Malek is given some very difficult material (‘OK in this scene, Rami, we’re going to pour fake concrete down your throat so just pretend to choke and panic and stuff – shhh, no, don’t worry, it’ll be fine…’) and does it incredibly well. For all its wonderfully cinematic direction and creativity, the show would not work at all if we didn’t care about Elliot. Malek makes us feel a lot of sympathy for this character and when he starts another monologue-heavy one-way conversation with us and glances at the camera, it never feels gimmicky or stupid. It feels oddly genuine.

After earning our trust in season one by pulling off a stunning gut-punch of a first season, Sam Esmail tested our patience with this one, but sometimes a show can make me forget about my problems with it by sweeping me along with its sheer confidence and audacity. I didn’t always know where it was going, or why, but I was happy to stick with season two as it gave off an air of ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, now check THIS out’.

Still, I’m not going to lie, I did breath a small sigh of relief when the finale arrived and confirmed that there was actually a point to the rest of the season’s introspective meandering. Now the stage is set for a new season which will hopefully perfect the balance of slow, surreal character drama and unnerving set-pieces that make Mr Robot such a great watch.

Best Episodes: “eps2.3_logic_b0mb.hc”/”eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx”

2016’s Top TV: Planet Earth 2

planet-earth-2
Copyright: BBC.

It’s been quite a rough year but, thankfully, there was a welcome respite from the endless stream of bad news – a weekly 60-minute dose of highly-concentrated awe and wonder that would uplift and inspire even the most jaded and disillusioned viewer.

For 6 wonderful weeks, Planet Earth returned to our screens, causing many a jaw to drop and eye to water as it showed more amazing footage from many of the most extreme and environments of the world – even man-made ones. The fact that, after decades of documentaries which have pored over every inch of the planet with cutting-edge tech, there are still so many routine behaviours and remarkable events from the natural world that we are only now seeing for the first time is incredible.

Each episode featured several little vignettes following a dazzling variety of different animals and creating a narrative out of nature. These scenes were intensely emotional, full of tragedy, thrills, death and beauty, while also frequently showing how much of a prick nature can be.

Pity the poor baby iguanas who scuttle out of their sandy homes to face an ambush of snakes before they can reach their parents (these scenes were so nerve-shreddingly tense they put many big-budget thrillers to shame). Be glad you’re not one of the mountain goats who have to clamber along crumbling, razor-thin paths on a cliff face to reach the only source of water on the ground, where predators lie in wait. Marvel at the snow leopards fighting for a mate in the Himalayas. Laugh at the sloth who swims across a surging river to reach a potential partner and gets rejected.

The thrill of Planet Earth II comes from knowing that all of it is real, these things happen on a regular basis and there are millions of other moments that occur when the cameras aren’t there, many of which may be even more amazing than what the world-class crew managed to capture.

Filmed (but not broadcast) in 4K ultra-HD, the show’s higher resolution made tiny details that were previously unnoticeable crystal-clear, like a foetal tadpole breaking out of its egg early to flee from a deadly wasp while it’s transparent frog father tries to protect the other eggs.

It also allowed the show to broadcast eye-poppingly-pretty panoramic shots of a large island populated by hundreds of thousands of penguins, frosty mountain valleys that transform into lush green forests, a plague of locusts flying across Madagascar, and a peregrine falcon perched on an aerial overlooking Manhattan.

It looks nice, basically. When writing a review of this series, it’s very tempting to just type ‘It’s great because, well, LOOK AT IT!’, stick a load of pictures underneath and call it a day, but that would be lazy. There’s more to this than just eye candy.

For me, the most intriguing part of Planet Earth II was the final episode, which looked at city wildlife. There had been moments in other episodes where, in-between all the animal facts and gentle narration, Sir David Attenborough would briefly explain how humans had been making the world much worse. E.g: A parade of crabs now get attacked by crazy yellow acid-spitting ants literally called ‘crazy yellow ants’ which humans introduced to the crabs’ island, a jungle in Madagascar has been deforested so much that it’s cut the local lemur population in half, etc, etc, oh dear, oh dear.

Perhaps, I thought, the “Cities” episode would be where he’d really let loose, wagging his finger at the camera and scolding viewers for irreversibly ruining the planet with all the pollution and greenhouse gases we create that damage the habitats shown over the course of the series. It would be entirely justified, if a bit of a depressing way to end the show.

But the programme kept a light touch on its lecturing and the actual episode didn’t mention climate change once, instead giving an unexpectedly hopeful view of how humans can coexist with the natural world.

The camera crew applied the same film-making techniques they used in jungles and deserts to film skyscrapers and streets, which was a memorably odd viewing experience that gave us an exciting new perspective of very familiar territory.

There was also plenty of humour to be found in seeing animals learning to cope with humans and vice versa. Monkeys ran along rooftops to steal food from a market in Mumbai, making the locals furious, and a lonely bird in Townsville used colourful scraps of discarded rubbish to build a display to attract a mate, which even included a small felt heart.

An incredibly-edited timelapse of a city at night full of glowing neon and bright lights lead into heartbreaking footage of baby turtles on a beach struggling to find their way as the light pollution from the nearby town disoriented them. Millions of viewers watched in horror as the helpless creatures wandered away from the moonlight, which is supposed to guide them to the sea, and onto busy roads and into sewer drains. This was the only time the episode focussed on the drawbacks of city life on wild animals, which, all things considered, shows remarkable restraint from the producers.

It was a very positive hour of television. It revealed the mutually-beneficial relationship between a pack of hyenas and the residents of an African town: the hyenas get meat from the butcher shop and the locals like them because they peacefully ward off bad spirits. It showcased futuristic architecture in Singapore that created a jungle environment out of an enormous steel framework filled with flowers and trees. There were flocks of birds which flew and danced in mysterious patterns above Rome for reasons even Sir David couldn’t explain. The episode ended with an optimistic and inspiring piece to camera from the legend himself, a wonderful send-off to an unprecedented episode of this unforgettable documentary.

Last but not least, the final ten minutes of each episode had a Diaries segment dedicated to the problems faced by the camera crew on their ambitious treks to remote parts of the world. These sections were just as fascinating as the footage they filmed, answering the question that everyone asks while watching documentaries like this: “How the hell did they film that?”. The answer, it turns out, is with months of preparation, plenty of clever improvisation, tough travelling and, sometimes, quite a lot of luck.

A documentary of this calibre only comes around once a decade. Cherish it.

Best Episode: It would be cheating to say ‘all of them’ so I’ll highlight “Cities”.