SEPTEMBER 8, 2015
I WONDER HOW MANY people have seen Rubicon. More specifically, I guess, I wonder if Sam Esmail has seen it. Rubicon is something of the lost sheep, or maybe the black sheep, of AMC’s storied history of original programming, the second Great Awakening of the new Golden Age of TV. First, there was Mad Men, then there was Breaking Bad, then there was The Walking Dead. Three mythical achievements, three hits of varying kinds, one-two-three steps to AMC’s status as a serious player in the world of serial television. Except it wasn’t one-two-three. Two months before The Walking Dead lurched out of the gate in 2010, Rubicon premiered. And 13 episodes later, nobody ever heard from it again.
I really liked Rubicon. It starred the perennially underused James Badge Dale as an analyst at a think tank — and exceptional crossword solver — who slowly unravels a massive global conspiracy. It was funny and nervous, it was spooky, it was a show about a post-9/11 world that was surreally tech-free, and, like a lot of the best shows of this era, it wasn’t afraid to be slow, ambiguous, and unambiguously ambitious. Rubicon was a serialized seventies conspiracy thriller, and it felt really new on TV. I didn’t just like it, I loved it. Every Sunday, my partner Melanie and I would chant “Ru-bi-con, Ru-bi-con” out of excitement that soon we’d get to watch our favorite show that nobody else was watching. (True story.)
But, for any number of reasons, the network cancelled it after one season. It was the third of AMC’s original series and the first that AMC decided wasn’t worth it. Shit happens, and in this age of “Peak TV,” it’s hard to complain, but this show has uniquely been denied the kind of second turn that single-season series often get post-mortem. Terriers, FX’s wacky one-season PI dramedy, was cancelled right around the same time as Rubicon, but a streaming life on Netflix has given that show a cult longevity. Rubicon, on the other hand, is not on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, or AMC’s OnDemand channels. The DVDs are on back-order. If I wanted to re-watch Rubicon right now — and I honestly kind of do — I don’t have the foggiest idea how. If I didn’t know better, I’d say there was some sort of conspiracy afoot!
But back to Sam Esmail. Has he seen it? Is Rubicon one of the myriad influences stirring around his new hit hacker drama Mr. Robot on USA? In Vulture a few weeks ago, Esmail listed Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Fight Club, Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, Breaking Bad, Risky Business, Blade Runner, and Girls as influences on the show’s aesthetic and construction. But, wait, he didn’t just list these out of the blue. Vulture asked. The piece is titled, “Taxi Driver, Girls, and 7 Other Big Influences on Mr. Robot.” Interviewers tend to tailor their interviews to their interviewees, and Vulture decided that the best way to get at the essence of Sam Esmail, creator of Mr. Robot, was to ask him what other things he was thinking about when he created it. There’s a reason for this. I think Mr. Robot is one of the best new shows of the year, I couldn’t wait for each weekly episode to air, and I’m thrilled it’s coming back for a second season, but, at the same time, every episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about its disappeared ancestor: I wonder if this guy’s seen Rubicon. The conspiracy, the debt to seventies thrillers, the lone troubled genius with the sad eyes, even the actor Michael Cristofer (pictured above) playing basically the same role. I see Rubicon when I watch Mr. Robot, but that’s not a bad thing, nor is it the only thing that’s true about my relationship to the show as a spectator. That’s just how it works: networks of inference and allusion. It’s not downgrading Mr. Robot’s originality or Esmail’s creative achievement to suggest that, in an era of influential TV series, Mr. Robot is maybe the most visibly and precociously influenced series on the air.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that he lived in a “retrospective age,” that “the foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes.” And he demanded that a new art, a new vision of God and nature, be forged in the nineteenth century. But Ralph knew as well as anybody that “new” is a relative concept. Everything that is is a recombination of what’s old, what’s known. The impossibility of newness is not a failure so much as the definition of existence. We — along with our loved ones and our objects and our art — are a reassemblage of what once was. We can’t behold anything new, but we can hope to see through new eyes that which is newly arranged and that which has been here for a long time.
So a TV series identified by its influences is not just okay, it’s natural. In other words, Mr. Robot’s pastiche quality may be its defining trait, but that doesn’t mean it’s negatively defined by indebtedness. Just because a work owes something to another work doesn’t mean that it’s plagiarism or hackery. Nor does it mean that a pastiche with this kind of dynamic associative energy and annotative sophistication isn’t, in and of itself, somewhat unique to cable television. You can see the Kubrick and the Scorsese and, once someone points it out, even the Dunham, but it’s neither all you see nor the limit of what you might be able to see if you look hard enough.
But given what Ralph said earlier, given that anything we watch likely consists of a series of revisions, variations, sometimes even outright thefts, and given that nobody seems to mind the show’s nods to other media, why are we so concerned with Mr. Robot’s influences? Why ask Sam Esmail what he’s watching when we only come upon that kind of information by accident talking to Vince Gilligan or Jenji Kohan? Television is built on this kind of recycling. The Sopranos and Deadwood are both genre pieces as derivative as they are innovative, every procedural borrows from every other procedural, most of the bread-and-butter series surrounding Mr. Robot on USA are cut from the same sunwashed linen cloth. What’s so shocking about Mr. Robot all of a sudden? The stylistic appropriations of Mr. Robot aren’t shocking because TV series are immune to influence. Rather, I think they’re remarkable — as in, we’re remarking upon them — for two reasons:
1. Many of them are aesthetic.
2. One of them is enormous and complete.
First things first: as much as TV has entered film’s cultural prestige space, we’re not necessarily used to talking about TV series visually in the same way. For every micro-revolution that’s occurred since Tony Soprano woke up this morning and got himself a gun, few of those have been rooted in new approaches to small screen visuality. It’s a cliché to say that television is a “writer’s medium,” but, from the attribution of authorship to the guiding of series in production, it mostly is. Maybe the director’s revolution or the cinematographer’s rise is to come, but, if they are, we’re only in the earliest stages. American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, The Knick, Rectify, Hannibal, Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective (this is what I’m calling the only non-embarrassing season of that show) — this isn’t a short list, but, even so, cinematic TV series like these are still the exception rather than the rule.
[N.B. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the use of the word “cinematic” to describe things on television. Most of that controversy, rightly, surrounds the use of “cinematic” as an honorific, a marker of unusual quality, rather than as a way of describing a particularly complex visual style. In other words, to say that a TV series is cinematic has the same effect, often, of calling it “novelistic.” There needn’t be any actual formal echo — the point is to say that a downtown artform has an uptown funk to it. That’s not what I mean here.]
And Mr. Robot is solidly a member of this club. Four of the seven influences Esmail cited in the Vulture interview are influences on the show’s cinematography. Much of Mr. Robot’s unsettling shudder, for instance, is achieved by violating — or warping — the rules of continuity that hold together visual narratives and help us forget the fact that we’re watching a fundamentally artificial medium. The most prominent one of these on Mr. Robot is called “shortsighting.” Vulture (which is really acing the Mr. Robot coverage, for what it’s worth) ran a great explainer of this technique, and some guy named “Semih” made this fantastic supercut of instances of it from the series on Vimeo.
An ordinary shot-reverse-shot sequence is made of two shots, each with one figure’s face in the frame, and each, usually, with that figure in the opposite part of the frame in order to emphasize the back-and-forth nature of conversation. (As if you’re positioned in between, and you’re turning your head from side to side, following the dialogue.) This is the heart of a continuity system, and it helps us as viewers to visualize the space of the film world. Mr. Robot, however, shoots its conversations with the figures in the lower corner of the frame, and, instead of placing them at opposite ends of either shot, the figures occupy the same quadrant of screen space. It’s a technique that’s both alienating and intimate, suffocating and airy. This is a filmic world built to feel like it’s going to fold in on itself. It emphasizes closeness and distance simultaneously, and, at a very basic level, it means that every conversation, no matter how banal, feels unexpected to us. This, then, expands out to our looming suspicion that something is not right with the world of Mr. Robot, a suspicion that turns out to be quite well-founded. This might remind us of Punch-Drunk Love, it might remind us more recently of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and it may remind us of the films of David Fincher. But we’ll get to Fincher shortly.
To say that techniques like this make Mr. Robot unusual isn’t to say other shows don’t pay attention to visuals — most major network crime procedurals are incredibly stylized, and, to cite one example, part of Mad Men’s signature look involved low-angle shots that enable the viewer to always see the ceiling — but Mr. Robot uses every visual tool at its disposal to make meaning, and that is unusual for TV, a writer’s medium after all. Mr. Robot doesn’t just have a distinctive style guide, like an elaborate Instagram filter; it takes a holistic approach to storytelling that involves cinematography and camera movement as much as dialogue and narrative structure. This kind of attention to shot by shot composition is more common to feature filmmaking than it is to series television for reasons of both logistics and tradition.
But this is an ambitious series — airing, paradoxically, on a pathologically unambitious network — and it bakes in aesthetic depth at every opportunity. Mr. Robot, for instance, also has the best and most thoughtful title cards on television right now, inspired, so Esmail says, by the title card of Clockwork Orange. These moments are the ones that really seem to announce the show’s perspective, even its aspiration. Nearly every one of the series’ ten episodes begins with a shock of some kind. Sometimes the cold open features a new, revelatory character beat, sometimes it’s an important piece of plot, sometimes it’s a scene of actual shocking violence or cruelty. My favorite comes at the beginning of the seventh episode. So far, we’ve been used to cold opens punctuated by bloody violence or the threat of catastrophe. After episode six’s tour de force jailbreak episode that ends with the death of a major character, we begin episode seven with a gentle, if unsettled, flashback to the original meet-cute between our protagonist Elliot and the recently deceased. The scenes play like an indie romantic-comedy; manic pixie dream girl, dissociative dude. And then, just as The Cure’s “Pictures of You” swells in the background, we get the off-hand reveal that Elliot is responsible for setting her grisly death in motion. With the bridge to the previous episode’s end still in our minds, it’s like having a dream suddenly turn to nightmare. We stay in the flashback, but the title card punches in. I almost cried. It’s the song, it’s the way the card is cued by the blurred outline of the girl bashfully turning her head, it’s the way the optimism of the scene gets sucked out like an air lock. It’s one of the most devastating things I’ve seen on TV in a long time.
And they’re all great. We always learn something, we are always hooked right away. And, with a swell of that dank synth sound, that title card stamps the image. Often, even the best title cards or credits sequences serve as a pause to the dramatic action. American Horror Story, for instance, builds to its credits masterfully, but, once you get there, you know what to expect. Your senses are heightened to great effect, but they are not sustained. Other shows have credits that signal it’s okay to get up and get a beer or dessert or that serve as a convenient place to pause for a bathroom break. Mr. Robot’s have follow-through. By superimposing rather than cutting — a deceptively simple trick — they push us through the shock corridor into the episode. They mark, but they don’t cut.
This is an aesthetic characteristic that isn’t necessarily derivative so much as “inspired by.” (The Clockwork Orange title card isn’t nearly as impactful as these are, for my money — adapting that technique to serial narrative is pretty ingenious.) The superimposed title without credits is more common to contemporary independent film than it is to TV — though Girls does something similar, as does UnREAL — and visually it has echoes of the superimposed titles of classical Hollywood that have since gone out of fashion, but it’s largely Mr. Robot’s own thing. So far, then, this show doesn’t seem like a terribly ravenous consumer of aesthetic influence. But then, you remember The Big One.
[N.B: If you’re already convinced to watch this show and want to attempt to maintain a pure viewing experience, stop reading here. That said, my dad accidentally found out the spoiler I’m about to reveal after I convinced him to watch the pilot this week, and I assured him that it’s definitely possible to enjoy the series even knowing the big thing about the series from the jump. I think I’m right. We can ask him in a couple weeks.]
Fight Club: the enormous and complete influence. Mr. Robot’s got a lot of aesthetic allusions right on the surface, but it’s got one big stinker of a plot twist lifted from Fight Club. The idea begins to float around the second episode, if not by the pilot, that Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater, is imaginary. (And not just because the great cured ham of an actor Christian Slater has always done line-readings in a way that is unlike any human person’s natural voice in the history of time.) You start to notice how much time Mr. Robot and Elliot spend alone together, you listen to Elliot’s voiceover when he questions his own sense of reality, and, once ensconced in the belly of fSociety, you begin to notice how infrequently anybody responds to Mr. Robot’s exclamations. Mr. Robot’s imaginariness is not a secret well-kept. By the time it was revealed in the ninth episode, I’d already spent nine episodes rationalizing out loud. Maybe the trick is that he is real, but they’re shooting it like he isn’t just to mess with us. Or maybe he’s real and Wellick is imaginary. Or, maybe it’s a misdirection because Elliot’s not real, and he’s really a figment of Angela’s imagination. Feminist protagonist switcheroo!
That Mr. Robot and Elliot are the same person ought to ring some alarm bells, and it initially filled me with worry. A show can’t set up a twist that’s somebody else’s twist! Would this reveal ruin everything that had come before? Is this show stupid?! This isn’t just influence, this is highway robbery. Who is Mr. Robot, asks the ad campaign? The answer is Tyler Durden. But, where this could be a huge, devastating problem, I think there’s a way to imagine that this particular debt and Esmail’s management of it are what make Mr. Robot genuinely great. There’s no anxiety to this influence; just preternatural chill. Thrill, even. The show luxuriates in its stolen goods, pays for hot dogs with marked bills, leaves a trail of cryptic clues for the rookie detective. Like the best serial killers, Mr. Robot wants to get caught.
The first thing to say about this twist is that it was easy to figure out. Suspiciously easy. For all the reasons I mention above, I bet it’s likely that a large number of viewers already knew Mr. Robot wasn’t real by the time the show explicitly informed us that he wasn’t real. What this did, I think, was keep our attention away from other, less predictable, twists we might have otherwise started to unravel. Specifically, it made the revelation of Darlene’s identity — as Elliot’s sister and Angela’s good friend — hit like a truck. Why weren’t we paying attention to her strange familiarity? Because we were paying attention to the twist we already knew was happening.
More than that, suspecting he was imaginary from early on, we were distracted from speculating about who Mr. Robot might be. He’s Mr. Robot, the imaginary friend, right? Why would an imaginary friend have a real-life referent? Edward Norton’s doesn’t have a dad who looks like Brad Pitt. Finding out that Mr. Robot was less Tyler Durden and more Hamlet’s Ghost, again, hit harder because we’d perhaps allowed ourselves to become too complacent in our sleuthery. The twist you see coming makes the twists you don’t better.
But it’s more than just the clever management and manipulation of audience expectations, and it’s more than just a cheeky deployment of another film’s trick. Mr. Robot lays claim to and announces its indebtedness. More than any other show this year short of Mad Men, it acknowledges and improvises with the seeming impossibility of newness, the citational chain of being, the inescapability of repeating yourself and others. The last scene of the ninth episode ends with a solo piano cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” on the soundtrack. The original recording played on the soundtrack in the last scene of Fight Club. It’s as brazen a sound cue as you’re likely to hear this year, and it goes past homage. There’s something death-defying about courting an audience with an aesthetic, flattering them as they detect it, and then looking directly at them and asking them if they feel smart for figuring it out. It’s an aggressive gesture as much as it’s a conspiratorial one.
There’s an ad that plays on USA network for Mr. Robot. It’s nominally an ad for ECorp, the evil conglomerate at the center of the show’s hack. The ad is calm and gentle, all soft light and beautiful vistas — it’s the kind of ad that fits USA’s other breezy original programming — until we see the digitized squiggles and fSociety’s Monopoly Man interrupts our regularly scheduled lifestyle porn. This is a relatively on-the-nose snapshot of Mr. Robot’s aesthetic place in the line-up of Suits, Royal Pains, and even the spectacularly funny if no less glossy Playing House. That’s the comfortable read for viewers of FX and HBO tuning in to see this anti-hero drama gone rogue. Mr. Robot’s millennial cyberpunk nostalgia is here to disrupt your lifestyle porn, sheeple!
But I think this show is just as interested in disrupting the self-satisfaction of the viewer — like me, maybe like you — counting cinematic references and nudging their couchmates to point out allusions. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe Sam Esmail, et al, are just as self-satisfied about this whole business. That Pixies song, though, felt like more than just an Easter Egg to me. The temptation is to view this network of inferences as gimmick or fakery. But I wonder if this isn’t as much homage as critique, a recognition of what changes we can ring within the inescapable recycling of matter. What if Mr. Robot is a television show that doesn’t aspire to be a movie but to do better what a movie has done wrong? To take seriously and with gratitude what the scales of taste and prestige take for granted? What if Mr. Robot wants to reclaim the cinematic from cinema?
In Fight Club the Pixies do something like authorize that final moment, they bring it home, send the fists of the college freshman dudes jolting into the air. It ends in celebration, even if it’s tired and ambivalent. The raw beauty of destruction, the clean-feeling of shooting yourself in the head. There’s nothing celebratory about this show — it’s a show about mourning — and the song isn’t even the end. That song plays like a ghost in the room, floating the moment it scores up and around, turning it in hand. It forces us to see with new eyes. This is a show that takes violence seriously, that takes loss seriously, that doesn’t have it both ways with the philosophizing and the misogyny and the bromance and the blood. Tyler Durden spews hackneyed monologues, but he’s a figment of the imagination; Mr. Robot spews hackneyed monologues, but he’s something very real, something haunted and wet with tears deep underneath his bluster. Fight Club has a coldness to it — the chill of irony and satire and judgment — that insulates it and renders it triumphant. Mr. Robot is warm and sad and alive. It is built of those parts we recognize because that is how art is made. It’s built of those parts we recognize because they are ours.