“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

Mr. Robot Golden Age Of Television

The silly, ham-fisted poster for Mr. Robot. Image via IMDb.

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very suburban types it featured, replete with a sprinkling of ‘artsy’ moments that were anything but. A choice example is Walter, after learning of his terminal cancer, glaring madly at his son’s bullies, then snapping in a fit of violence completely out of character to his former self — I mean, he’s got nothing to lose, right? That such obvious, heavy-handed moments are thought of as subtle and ‘deep’ world-building devices shows just how little most care for art, even as they turn the show into the highest-rated program in IMDB history.

Still, for all of Breaking Bad’s over-the-top antics, 2013’s Orange Is The New Black is even worse, applying a Sex In The City superficiality to — well, to prison, of all things, leading to hokey inmate conversations, twee little ‘insights,’ and some of the worst racial stereotypes of the last decade. Need proof? There’s an older Hispanic woman who comes to serve as the de facto mother-figure to the other inmates (‘feminine principle,’ and all), only to be replaced by another Hispanic lady who fulfills the same exact role. Then, there’s the white, naive Piper Chapman, on the one end, set against the white, bullshit-Buddhist Erica ‘Yoga’ Jones on the other, alongside the predictable — and predictably-arced — racial tensions that MUST develop. Worst of all, however, are the lesbian sex scenes, all written from a man’s perspective, and featuring trim, sexy fuck-dolls going at it as opposed to the fat, sloppy women with silver-dollar areolae and unkempt vaginas that make up America’s gross bulk — despite all the boosting of the show’s alleged ‘realism’. Odd, then, how progressive it’s been termed by the very people it needles and distorts.

Then there’s The Sopranos, which, like Weeds (2005) after it, puts alleged gangsters into increasingly unlikely situations, all the while attempting the kind of poesy that the best gangster films in fact accomplish. Remember that sorry bullshit with the ducks in the very first episode? That is called an ‘attempt,’ and a forced, clunky one at that, having little to nothing to do with Tony’s character except in the most obvious, ‘I-want-a-simpler-life’ sort of way. Remember the tiger scene in Mean Streets, where another Tony — an OK kid, compared to the worst of them — shows off his attachment to the animal? That’s called an ‘accomplishment,’ for it’s done in a way that’s believable with the film’s set-up, as well as the larger narrative, even as Sopranos literally had a quarter-century to improve these tropes.

Of the contenders, I’d argue Mad Men (2007) — a solid soap opera, overall — and The Wire (2002) are the best, with The Wire, especially, being defined by a deeper vision and a number of poetic moments that the more plot-driven Mad Men simply lacked. That said, none of these shows are truly great television, a la Ingmar Bergman’s series, or Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, or even some of the sitcoms from the same period. In other words, while I’d argue that cinema is doing the best of all art-forms, ca. 2015, this boon does not extend to television. Sure, there have been a couple of successes, but one or two good shows does not a Golden Age make. That’s just pure definition, really.

So why the television/film divide, and the ever-increasing draw to the former? Now, I can understand the cliffhanger nature of most of these shows, and the superficial, addictive quality of such, but there’s more, for the fans have made more out of their favorite programs. They’ve been called ‘profound,’ ‘high art,’ among other things, which is different from mere enjoyment. It’s an error (duh), but why this error — why an ad hoc justification for things that, being as bad as they are, can never be more than one’s personal taste? It is insecurity, but where does it finally arc?

It seems to me that ever since violence, hunger, and other menial ills have abated the world over — a possible turning point in human history — there are new ways to get one’s thrills, and quite a few outlets for things that are only now being conceptualized. This includes art, as well as other seemingly pointless endeavors traditionally reserved for a leisure class that, to be fair, is as confused as the people it has always claimed to govern.

Naturally, there is a reaction. Lacking something ‘purposeful’ to do with one’s body — something that’d formerly win admiration — and no longer defined by place or physical limits, the world has turned inward, towards introspection. This is a good thing, to be sure, but there’s another side that’s rarely considered. More people WANT to understand the world, but in terms of gross, numerical ratio, wisdom, as a rule, does not increase so quickly. More of it is simply reserved, yet it’s still an open question as to who can partake of these advantages.

Thus, for most, ‘looking in’ often means looking at the wrong thing, and since the mind finally has the kind of social capital that physical prowess and wealth once had, the compulsion is NOT to be right: it is for more. To be sure, this is a state of affairs that takes a limited resource, magnifies just one part of it, then assumes — with the new limits in place — that we’re still dealing with the unadulterated whole, thus claiming that we’ve entered some sort of ‘new normal’.

And no matter how wrong such an inversion is, it is attractive. So Fight Club (1999) came out, alongside The Matrix, American Beauty, and others, and the social capital of these same wannabes skyrocketed. I mean, here were losers — in real life, as well as the film — mouthing banalities that, for the first time, ever, were now being articulated in a way that they could safely attach themselves to. This was new, they argued, and so, alongside anime (brewing for 2-3 decades already), comic books, and video games, the 1990s helped give rise to a kind of poor-man’s art, even as, being the nouveau riche of the intellectual world, most of these consumers were too god-damn insecure to criticize their own products, ensuring that, decades later, none of it would grow, for ALL of it was indiscriminately nurtured.

Too little attention has been paid to this, partly because the emotions affixed to this change are deemed too important, on a personal level, to critically appraise. To say that the ‘democratic’ spirit of contemporary art (which is not really the definition of democratic, anyway) has followed a stupid, narrow-minded goal will damage so many personal investments — at a time when feeling relevant is quite hard for most — that it will take not logic but senescence to remedy. In this way, such art enters into a vicious cycle, for while it is born FROM insecurity, and therefore includes it as a major theme, insecurity also makes it difficult to troubleshoot and improve. In time, it simply becomes satisfied with its own limbo, and blurs from one project to the next.

Mr. Robot, in this sense, is neither an aberration nor a capstone to this trend, and is neither better, nor worse, than any of the titles above. In this way, it is no challenge to the narrative of the Golden Age Of Television, for it simply fits, and if something fits, it has, in most cases, simply been standardized: the un-intended object, I am sure, of its creator, who’s ripped off a hundred different genre tropes merely to come full circle to his own piece of puffery. Yet while it’s closer to ‘here,’ we’re not any closer to where we need to be. And this is a distinction that is either too subtle for most — for which it’ll be rejected — or, decades later, completely irrelevant, at which point it will be safe enough to embrace.

10 Comments “Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

  1. Andrew Geary

    Good article. I agree about Breaking Bad (haven’t really watched the other shows.) I also agree about why people praise these shows; people want something deep, which is good, but are not sure what “deep” looks like, or are attached to certain qualities that, to them, resemble depth. It’s often a weird, almost childlike vision of what great art looks like when in reality they’re just looking at a show that happens to have monologues and “poetic” imagery. Breaking Bad, while I enjoyed it, is not art, but schlock. The finale was terrible and pandering as fuck. Maybe the reason why a lot of people didn’t criticize was because they didn’t want to be “outed” and not want to appear shallow for not liking something that is supposedly good and deep.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      I wonder, on what level, this feeling of getting ‘outed’ is even consciously understood. I’ve read many discussions of these shows, and it seems that the bulk really believe they’re deep, artistic, well-written, etc., even as every other scene wallows in cliches, or really hammy moments.

      I can definitely imagine people growing up on ‘classic’ 90s video games, with those games’ rampant emotionalism and the like, then, with THAT as their standard, easily being swayed by stuff that’s only marginally deeper.

    2. Andrew Geary

      Maybe the majority genuinely believes that shows like Breaking Bad are deep, but I do think there are some, maybe not most people, who aren’t totally on board yet, perhaps due to a lack of self confidence, rationalize and go through mental hurdles to convince themselves that the show is actually what other people say it is. It may not even be a 100 percent conscious thing, but on some level they might think, “I don’t know, everyone, or so-and-so, says this show is good so I must feel wrongly about it.” Maybe it’s not a conscious fear of being “outed,” but a subconscious anxiety about being different from the group. Or perhaps it’s just my general disbelief that people would actually fall for such obvious tripe.

    3. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I’ve experienced the same thing, myself; as a kid, 17-18 years old, I assumed that all the praise for this or that random book of poetry, or obscure but bad-looking film, and my inability to connect with such, was simply my own immaturity, and ‘inexperience’. In time, you hopefully learn that’s not the case.

  2. Jay R

    Interesting. You’ve made quite a few good points here.

    Speaking of Breaking Bad, it was quite good in its beginning stages and one of the reasons was because of its humor. It didn’t seem to take itself too seriously. But then… one day it did. So I stopped watching.

    I’m not sure if we’ve been in the golden age of television or not, but if that’s what people want to call it, I’ve wondered why they pick such underwhelming shows to talk about in relation to it.

    I think the only show of the past decade to really endear itself to me is Justified.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      I don’t recall “Breaking Bad” ever being ‘good,’ but I definitely enjoyed it for some time, as pure entertainment with cliffhanger elements. I had to stop watching it for the reasons you state, and had no idea it was getting so acclaimed (ironically, the more ridiculous and silly and ham-fisted it got) until later.

      Have you seen The Wire? It’s something ‘fun’ to look forward to every week, or whatever, but it’s also deeper than these shows, has many downright excellent episodes, and a number of great cinematic moments. The show’s ‘lows’ have to do with bad plot devices, at times, a few poorly-sketched characters, and, sometimes, symbolism that is just too obvious and clunky. Still, it’s definitely worth it.

  3. Laura

    A lot of very good points here. If I’m allowed to nitpick, though, I don’t necessarily agree with your singling out of ‘Orange is the New Black’s sex scenes. After all, television series in general (not to mention Hollywood movies) tend to glamourise things by employing attractive actors, so I wouldn’t really see this as a slight towards lesbians in particular. It is just the expected (and accepted) bullshit.

    But I found Andrew Geary’s comment, about people perhaps realising a show’s lack of quality but trying to convince themselves otherwise, to be interesting too. It’s something that I’ve experienced myself until relatively recently- having a kinda basic critical sense of what does and doesn’t work but just assuming, because of others’ opinions, that I was wrong. I’m only just now finding websites (such as this one!) where the criticism really is consistent and only based on the work itself and its quality.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      The real issue with Orange Is The New Black’s sex scenes is that they do absolutely nothing to propel character in any deep way. They’re simply ‘there’ for people to feel edgy or drool.

      For this reason, the sex plays out exactly as if a man had written his own sexual fantasies of ‘what lesbians do’ into the show. There’s hot young girls, there’s stripping for the camera, there’s pushing women against the wall, all the while she turns and winks at a spectator lustily… You don’t get to do that, then turn around and discuss the alleged ‘realism’ of these situations. It’s glamorized, yes, but to the point of not even being recognizably human at times, and not only re: sex. Of course, these are probably the most minor issues with the show. Far worse is the ridiculous dialogue, the cliches, the predictable and superficial narrative arcs.

      And Andrew’s right. I’ve experienced what you’ve experienced, myself, when I was 17 or 18. I’d read all of these glowing reviews of ridiculous films, ridiculous books of poetry, and so on, and feel that, in some way, the issue was with ME, since I was probably ‘too young’ and ‘too inexperienced’ to really get it. It takes time to realize that the world is both a lot more complex AND a lot simpler than you’re led to believe, and that human beings — at least in the context of their own time — have not been the best arbiters of quality. Just look at how long it takes good scientific concepts to take root; how long “Moby-Dick” had to be neglected before it was recognized; the way every generation, from pretty much any time in history, ends up shaking its head at the one immediately preceding it. If this is recognized, then some people can learn to ignore the crowd, and look for recurring patterns that point to longevity.

      Anyway, thanks for the words, and I’m glad you find the website useful. A great one is Dan Schneider’s Cosmoetica.com, which got me started on this path some time ago. He’s reviewed well over a thousand films and books and has a great series of poetry essays, as well. Good resources.

      Feel free to contact him at his site or me at my e-mail (under the “Contact” bar) if you ever have any specific questions or simply want to discuss something.

      Thanks again.

  4. Dosan G.

    Bit of a late comment here, but what do you think of ‘adult cartoon’ programs? Stuff like The Simpsons or the more recent BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty?

    I’ve seen Bojack Horseman and thought it was ok. The first season’s script is kind of irritating up until the last few episodes where it picks up and keeps it up throughout the second season. I mean, the dialog is pretty corny and it’s psychological depth is about as subtle as a mag 9 earthquake, but the gags are amusing.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      I’ve not seen BoJack Horseman, but there’s obviously good stuff in The Simpsons, and I’d consider much of South Park to be the best ‘adult’ cartoon ever made. It’s genuinely good art beyond its typical kids’ or animated categories.

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