Mr. Robot and the Shadow of Expectation

Mr. Robot is a good TV show. I watched it. I liked it.

But I didn’t love it.

Image provided by imdb/USA Network

That’s the issue I’m wrestling with. I came to Mr. Robot months after it first aired. I’d read a lot about it by the time I actually delved into it. Critics hailed it; many placed it on their “Top 10 of 2015” lists. The show attracted a passionate online following that evangelizes it. Awards groups have gotten in on the love. An almost messianic buzz surrounds the show.

Other people love Mr. Robot and want you to love it, too.

That’s not unreasonable, really, People like to share their excitement over works of pop art that move them. It’s one of the best aspects of the online world we’ve all come to embrace.

I was probably halfway through the ten-episode first season of Mr. Robot when I realized that I was admiring the show more than I was enjoying it. I found myself nodding with approval at certain production or storytelling choices. Or applauding the skill involved in certain performances. But I wasn’t getting lost in the characters and their stories. I liked it. I didn’t love it.

Unpacking the reasons for that disconnect brings up a lot about how we watch and discuss TV now.

Latecomers to a work of pop art often run the risk of the expectation bar being set so high that the work can’t possibly live up to it. That’s not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the effect feels more visceral in our immediate, online world where we have concentrated doses of opinion at our fingertips within a very short period of time.

So maybe the enthusiasm I was seeing for Mr. Robot made me expect too much of it. Maybe that made me less forgiving of certain elements of the show (characters, plot points and storytelling decisions) that didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I expected so much, based on the love of others, that things that wouldn’t have bothered me as much in a less heralded production seemed magnified.

Image providved by imdb/USA Network

A double-edged sword was the worldview on display in Mr. Robot. The perspective on the state of the world threaded through the narrative isn’t one that particularly resonates with me. That’s bound to keep a viewer at a certain distance.

Ironically, though, one of the things I most admired about Mr. Robot was that it has a point of view, even if it’s one that’s not particularly in line with my sensibilities. Too many shows that wind up on television bear a depressing anonymity. They feel cobbled together by committee out of bits and pieces recycled from other works. You can’t imagine anyone actually caring about what the show is doing. Mr. Robot had a clear voice and some weighty issues on its mind. I appreciated that, even if it was coming from a very different place than my thinking. But even if you appreciate it, embracing something that’s “not your thing” is difficult.

Another aspect was how I watched Mr. Robot. I took in the ten episodes OnDemand over the course of a week or so, months after the show first aired. It brought up the point many have made about streaming series that make their entire seasons available at once. It might engage fans to watch the whole thing in a short amount of time, but it causes a disconnect in other ways. Fans aren’t watching at the same time, necessarily. Commentary and analysis of individual episodes becomes difficult and the community aspect that surrounds a show can be lost.

Image provided by imdb/USA Network

Mr. Robot originally rolled out in a traditional weekly format on the USA Network. It’s dense installments were made for in-depth discussion and analysis. The online community that formed around the show had an entire week to devote to each episode. Being disconnected from that discussion might have left me less engaged with the show.

There may be no “silver bullet” answer here. Sometimes, you just don’t click with something for no particular reason. Everyone can’t love everything. Finding things about a project to praise doesn’t mean you take it to heart.

I would still recommend Mr. Robot. It’s well-made, stylish and propulsive. It’s well-cast and the writers do some interesting things along the way. I’ll likely watch the second season.

Just maybe not as it unfolds.

Originally published at on January 20, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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