Public Service Announcement 14 of 2017: Mr. Robot; Orange Is The New Black

A quick PSA from the frontlines of the streaming/broadcast interface. In the UK Mr. Robot is shown first on Amazon Prime, with TV broadcast coming along later. So, a few months after premiering on Amazon, season 2 starts tonight on Universal Channel at 9pm. I watched the first season, but I’m not sure it had quite enough about it to make me sign up for another go.

Wholeheartedly recommended, though, is the genuinely stellar first season of Orange Is The New Black, a Netflix original which finally makes it to linear broadcast tonight on Sony at 9pm.

Public Service Announcement 22 of 2016: Shades of Blue, Containment, Mr. Robot

A few of July’s coming attractions. First up is Shades of Blue, or #DetectiveJLo as we’re calling it, in which Jennifer Lopez plays an NYPD detective who, having been caught up in a FBI anti-corruption initiative, is obliged to become an informant. And she’s a single mother, which I’m guessing will require her to juggle family and career; also, I’m assuming there’ll be a love interest somewhere in the cast. The reviews in America were generally unenthusiastic, but it hooked enough viewers to merit renewal for a second season. And, frankly, at this time of year Unpopcult is in the mood for some inconsequential cop nonsense. We’ll review the first episode, at least, in due course (Wednesday 13 July, Sky Living, 9pm).

Another new show from America, Containment, starts on the same night. It’s a remake of Belgian drama Cordon, in which part of a city is sealed off due to a disease outbreak. The CW has moved the action to Atlanta, home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which intrigues me just a little: I’ve become used to CDC operatives turning up in the occasional episode of other shows, and I’d sometimes wondered why it didn’t get a vehicle of its own. However, Containment is another one which the critics haven’t embraced, and this time the viewers aren’t turning up in sufficient numbers to save it. So it’s going to be a one-and-done (Wednesday 13 July, E4, 9pm).

And the second season of Mr. Robot is making its way to British viewers via Amazon Prime, starting 14 July. I reviewed most of the first season, but didn’t quite finish watching it. This may be because I was never quite convinced that it’s as good as people were telling me, or it may be because I’m still not a huge boxset fan. However, the good news is that season 1 is finally going to be on “actual” TV as well, starting on Universal at 9pm on Thursday 21 July. So I might give it another go, even if that will involve a certain amount of rewatching.

A few others: two Unpopcult favourites are going from one season straight into the next. Parks and Recreation’s seventh and final season starts on Sunday 24 July at 11pm on Dave, and although the fifth season of White Collar is available on Netflix and iTunes, it gets its first TV showing on Universal, starting at 8pm on Monday 11 July. Having just watched the fourth season I’d forgotten how much I like this show, although I don’t think CJ is in any danger of forgetting how much she likes Matt Bomer.

And a final roundup: season 2 of Zoo, a show which looks completely bonkers, starts 17 July at 9pm on Sky Living; BBC 1’s starry adaptation (Toby Jones, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Ian Hart, Stephen Graham) of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent starts at the same time; and Netflix’s 80s-set Winona Ryder-starring Stranger Things, in which a boy vanishes into thin air, drops on 15 July.

Mr. Robot s1 ep 5; s1 ep 6

We’re in catch-up mode on Unpopcult. It’s been a few weeks since we reviewed Mr. Robot: partly because there was a lot of other stuff going on in December; and, if I’m being honest, this kept getting pushed further back in the queue because I was lukewarm about episode 4. But with a few other favourites finishing up or on hiatus, it seemed like a good time to get reacquainted.

Happily, these two episodes were much better: no tiresome hallucinations (unless… but let’s just leave that thought for now) and, in each case, a strong central plot. In episode 5 Elliot and the Fsociety crew finally hit Steel Mountain, with Elliot posing as a tech billionaire in order to gain access. It should be said that he hardly goes in for method acting: he’s as distracted and somnolent in this role as he normally is. But thanks to a chance meeting with Tyrell he manages to get into the executive dining room, which is on the level of Steel Mountain where he needs to be in order to connect his thing to the… thing. Whatever it is he’s trying to do to override the climate control. All the while Mr. Robot’s voice is in his head, either because Elliot’s wearing an earpiece and Mr. Robot is sitting outside the facility in a car, directing operations; or because Mr. Robot is, literally, all in his head. But after all of that work, the Dark Army, the Chinese hackers who are an essential part of the plan, pull out anyway. (During all of this Mr. Robot has a conversation with Darlene, which might or might not blow my theory all to hell. We’ll see, but I think it’s the first time I’ve noticed him interacting with someone who isn’t Elliot.)

Meantime there are a couple of subplots floating around, which will be further developed in episode 6. One or two of them need a little longer in the oven, though. Angela walks out on the appalling Ollie, and discovers that her father is in debt. The equally appalling Tyrell is trying to intimidate and/or humiliate Scott, his rival as CTO candidate, and Scott’s wife Sharon; they’re not the type to back down, as it turns out.

And on his way back from Steel Mountain, Elliot has a nice, affectionate conversation with Shayla, who’s started work as a waitress. They sound like a normal couple. We therefore know that something bad is going to happen. Sure enough, when Elliot gets back to his apartment Shayla’s phone is there, and when he answers it the voice on the other end is that of Fernando Vera, Shayla’s abusive boyfriend, calling from prison.

This becomes the main plot in episode 6: Vera blames Elliot for grassing him up, and his associates have abducted Shayla in order to put pressure on Elliot to hack the prison systems so that Vera can walk out. Elliot at first says it can’t be done but we know that’s a bluff; Elliot can do pretty much what he likes, given time and resources, and Vera doesn’t believe him either.

So Elliot gets to work, while coping with distractions from Angela (she’s trying to persuade an attorney to reopen the lawsuit against Evil Corp); Mr. Robot, of course (he appears out of nowhere to offer advice); and Vera’s gun-pointing brother (Elliot realises that his plan is to kill Vera, either inside prison or outside). The episode doesn’t try to bite off more than it can chew, and I thought it the best so far, even if the Tyrell arc continues to be, for me anyway, the weakest part of the show – there’s some more penis-waving with Scott, which I thought was going to be metaphorical but… isn’t.

Ultimately, though, Elliot succeeds in hacking the jail and springing Vera, who promptly shoots his brother. Elliot demands the return of Shayla, and Vera tosses him the keys to a car. Once more, we kind of know what’s coming when Elliot opens the trunk, and what he sees is finally enough to break through his ennui: Shayla, dead, throat cut. Frankie Shaw has been really good as Shayla, and I’m going to miss her, as will the show. On the bright side, though, I’m impressed again.

Mr. Robot s1 ep 4

The Fsociety plan to attack Steel Mountain, where EvilCorp stores its data, is back on. At least, I think it is, but it’s hard to tell: Elliot is trying to come off morphine, and I suspect that a lot of what we see this week is a hallucination. Which piles problem on problem as far as I’m concerned. I’m not entirely happy with the show’s constant hints that at least one of the characters is imaginary (of which more later), but making a substantial part of an episode into a lengthy dream sequence is the sort of thing which is almost guaranteed to annoy me. So Elliot encounters a talking fish; he gets shot up with heroin; he kind-of proposes to Angela; and Mr. Robot interacts with someone apart from him. In all likelihood, though, he’s still in a motel room sweating the morphine out of his system.

If he is Elliot, that is: “You’re not Elliot”, Angela tells him during the detox. “You’re the -“ but she’s cut off. He’s also told at one point that he’s only a month old, which four episodes into a weekly TV series has to set alarm bells ringing. I’m still saying that Mr. Robot is a figment of Elliot’s imagination, but it could, instead, quite easily be that Elliot is the imaginary character. Or that one or all of them is/are the creation of someone else entirely; apart from the writers, I mean. I’d quite like the show to get to the point about this while I still care.

Actually, the non-Elliot stuff this week was at least as interesting. The show’s doing its best to flesh out the supporting cast, and in this episode four of the female characters are featured heavily: Angela, in particular, gets a life outside of Elliot’s detox. She hangs with Shayla, takes ecstasy, makes out with her, then introduces the spyware onto the EvilCorp server; meantime, Darlene and Trenton try to assist with the attack on Steel Mountain by linking up with the Dark Army – more hackers – to take down EvilCorp’s backup. With any luck, everyone concerned will get round to actually doing something to Steel Mountain in the next episode.

Mr. Robot s1 ep 3

Leaving aside, for now, the question of whether Elliot was actually pushed by the possibly-non-existent Mr. Robot at the end of the last episode, there’s certainly nothing imaginary about his injuries. He’s subsequently told by Mr. Robot that there’s no Fsociety without him, but decides to choose normality instead of emo-ing around in a hoodie, even accepting an invitation from his boss Gideon to a dinner party, and taking Shayla to it as his girlfriend. (Intriguingly, Gideon clearly doesn’t quite trust Elliot.)

But then Elliot discovers that Fsociety has dumped emails implicating EvilCorp in the death of his father – and, as it happens, Angela’s mother – from leukaemia, and he throws his lot in again with Fsociety. What this means for the show isn’t yet clear: I’ve managed to avoid spoilers, but it looks to me as if we’re being steered pretty firmly towards something being a figment of someone’s imagination; and since no-one, apart from Elliot, interacts with Mr. Robot this week, I’m going with him unless and until there’s evidence to the contrary. Which immediately, for me, blunts any impact the character might have. Darlene I think we can take at face value for now, although she’s hella annoying.

Apart from Elliot, this episode is notable for the rise of EvilCorp’s Tyrell Wellick as an important secondary character: we start, in fact, with him, as he works himself up to the point where he can pitch himself as the new CTO of EvilCorp, although he doesn’t even get asked for his speech. He then pays a homeless man so that he (Wellick) can beat him up, picks up and has sex with his boss’s male assistant in order that he can put some software on his phone, then rounds off the night with some mild consensual S&M with his very pregnant wife. Busy busy busy; the message, I think, is that Wellick does what needs to be done.

And Angela is dragged into the plot as well: Ollie admits to her that he’s being blackmailed into putting spying software on the EvilCorp server; oh, and he’s been unfaithful to her as well. Because of the consequences for her and her father were Cisco to do what he’s threatening, Angela tells Ollie to acquiesce; perhaps more surprisingly, although her immediate reaction is to split up with Ollie, she almost instantly changes her mind for some reason. Girlfriend can do better, I’d say, although my Angelliott ship has run aground on the Shayla rocks for now. As it happens, I quite like Elliot and Shayla as a couple as well, so I’ll maybe sit on the fence for a while. Another good episode, even if – for now anyway – I’m not quite watching the show I expected to be watching after the pilot.

Mr. Robot s1 ep 2

A little Mr. Robot housekeeping first. When it launched in the UK, no more than a couple of weeks ago, it was available exclusively on Amazon Prime. So anyone who didn’t have Prime was unable to see it, unless they “made other arrangements”. Now, though, it’s available to buy through both Amazon Video and iTunes, with the first episode free. I suppose if they’d done this at launch, or even made it known that it was in contemplation, some of the viewers who “made other arrangements” would have ponied up to get the show legitimately. I remain amazed at the alacrity with which content providers find new ways to shoot themselves in the foot.

Anyway, to the episode. I’m bound to say that, while I enjoyed it, I didn’t think it was quite as good as last week. The big confrontation from the end of that episode led to Wellick offering Elliot a job at EvilCorp, which Elliott has little difficulty in turning down. FSociety is threatening to dump the sensitive data it hoovered up last week unless EvilCorp agrees to ransom demands which it’ll never accept: cancelling all the debt it owns, giving its money to charity, that sort of thing.

There’s another Dexteresque takedown for Elliot: Fernando Vera, his dealer’s dealer, seems to have raped Shayla. Although Elliot realises that getting rid of Vera will mean that he no longer has access, through Shayla, to morphine, he nonetheless provides the police with evidence of Vera’s crimes, then creates his souvenir. And Ollie, Angela’s unpleasant boyfriend, accepts a CD on the street from a wannabe rapper: even in a normal show, we’d be suspicious, but on Mr. Robot, where paranoia is encouraged, we really do know that Ollie shouldn’t put the CD anywhere near his laptop. He does, of course, and now someone’s inside his system.

Mr. Robot’s intervention – real or imaginary, I’m still not wholly convinced – this week is to try to persuade Elliot to help with blowing up a gas plant, which is situated next to Steel Mountain, a data storage facility used by EvilCorp among others. Doesn’t seem to me like the best place to put a data storage facility, but there we go. Elliot resists getting involved, because he thinks people will die, and he doesn’t want to be a killer. He eventually comes up with another idea, but Mr. Robot – who even if imaginary is something of a jackass – sulks a little, then demands Elliot tells him about the death of his father, then REDACTEDS him onto the Coney Island REDACTED. I’m assuming that the consequences won’t be too significant, but I wasn’t expecting it, and it made for a nicely unsettling ending to a just-a-little-underwhelming episode.

Mr. Robot s1 ep 1

By day Elliot (the excellent Rami Malek) works for Allsafe, a cybersecurity firm which protects corporations from online attack. Among Allsafe’s clients is E Corp, the epitome of corporate nastiness, known to Elliot as Evil Corp. He has a therapist; he’s supposed to be on meds, but either supplements or substitutes with a carefully-calibrated dose of morphine; he’s socially awkward and doesn’t like being touched, although frankly I thought this was overplayed a little: after some molly he seems to be more than happy to sleep with his dealer. And one of his colleagues is his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), with whom he seems to be, perhaps, a little in love. Which would be good, because CJ and I have been bemoaning the lack of shipping opportunities on TV recently, and Angelliot is one I could get behind.

When he’s not working, though, he pulls his hoodie on and roams the streets, either literal or virtual, using his skills to right wrongs and mete out some vigilante justice: we first see him, in fact, when he confronts – with righteous, bug-eyed intensity – someone who runs child porn sites. He’ll also take care of his therapist’s dodgy boyfriend, and keep an eye on Angela’s romance as well.

One night, as part of Allsafe’s team, he manages to stop an attack on Evil Corp’s network, but once he’s inside the server he declines the chance to delete the malware. This is shortly thereafter revealed to be a test, set by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who takes him to FSociety, a hackers’ nest on Coney Island. Their plan is to bring Evil Corp down, and to achieve the greatest financial redistribution in history by wiping all the debt records it holds. (The logic is a little shaky at this point, but let’s go with it.) So will Elliot throw his lot in with FSociety? Is anyone who, or what, they seem to be? Why were the heavies at the end delivering Elliot to Wellick, Evil Corp’s tech guy, and what does he want?

Mr. Robot isn’t, it should be said, without flaws: I thought this pilot episode, hellofriend.mov, was perhaps a little too long. Christian Slater’s style sits uneasily with the rest of the show. I could have done without the repeated blathering homilies about the evils of capitalism, although I would imagine they play well to the target demographic. (I’m not saying that I necessarily disagree with them.) And I don’t know how I’m going to feel about the very clear implication that some at least of what we see is a hallucination on the part of Elliot: the fact that he, and therefore we, see and hear “Evil Corp” for E Corp whenever it shows up is enough in itself to make that point. I’ve been known to get fed up with dream sequences, unreliable narrators, and that sort of thing.

But is Mr. Robot good? Oh yes. It’s terrific. At times I was reminded of Dexter when it was cool: the moral vigilanteism co-existing with a hint of sexy amorality, the deadpan voiceover, the protagonist who says things like “I don’t know how to talk to people”, and “What I wouldn’t give to be normal. To live in that bubble”; and, as it turns out, the souvenirs he keeps of his successful takedowns. But it’s a different show, and there’s much more to it than that: I was struck, in fact, by the way in which Mr. Robot, and the world it’s set in, seemed fully-formed from the very first scenes, as if the people behind it know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. I’m in. Weekly (or whatever) reviews.