Once the best show on television, “Mr. Robot” has hit its sophomore slump

Paternal disappointment.
Paternal disappointment.
Image: USA Network
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I used to think Mr. Robot was the best show on television. Now, I have no idea what’s happening on it.

At the end of the show’s first season a year ago, I wrote that it was one of the most impressive TV debuts I had ever seen. That season, in which a young misfit, Elliot, joins a hacker collective seeking to take down an evil and ubiquitous corporation, was a masterclass in visual storytelling. Every show should heed its central lessons: Develop a unique style; don’t talk down to your audience; cast the right actors (not necessarily the most famous ones); take risks; and let the artists be artists.

Mr. Robot did just about everything right in that inaugural season, a pleasant surprise from a cable network that, before that point, was best known for its legal drama Suits and for broadcasting fake wrestling. And it arrived at the perfect time—its summer position opposite True Detective‘s disappointing second season made it look even better by comparison. Here was this little USA Network show about hackers, which had half the hype of the prestigious HBO crime series, but was twice as compelling.

Unfortunately, what happened to True Detective seems to be happening to Mr. Robot. Now burdened by the weight of high audience expectations, Mr. Robot has faltered in its second season.

My chief criticism of the show this year is a basic one: I literally don’t know what’s going on. The various sub-plots have become difficult for me to follow, and reading the recaps after each episode doesn’t clear up my confusion. That’s because many TV critics are similarly lost, and some are also irritated by the show’s muddled narrative.

The Atlantic called the show’s most recent episode, which featured a long sequence in the style of a cheesy 1990s American sitcom,  an “overwrought jumble.” Vox shared that sentiment, lamenting a show “lost in its own indulgence.” Vulture argued that it has become “an exercise in pure style, alternately dazzling and masturbatory.”

It’s admirable that USA Network allowed creator and showrunner Sam Esmail total creative freedom to craft the show’s beautifully original first season. But instead of finding different ways to feel fresh a year after debuting, the show has just found fresh ways to appear different, doubling down on its weirdness and bizarre drug trip sequences to the detriment of the actual story.

Mr. Robot was plenty weird in its first season, but its weirdness is not what made it work so well. It was a meticulously plotted narrative, that despite its complex computer coding language was entirely coherent and smooth, and it delivered a wholly satisfying reveal at the end. This season, in contrast, feels like grand moments of intentional weirdness barely linked together by lots of hushed talking and half-realized character motivations. The thematic through-line is a total mystery to me. Maybe that’s intentional, but I’m losing interest in figuring out what it is.

Following the critical success the show received in season one, USA president Chris McCumber called Sam Esmail an “auteur.” Esmail only directed a handful of the first season’s episodes (in addition to writing several episodes and serving as showrunner), but the network agreed to let him direct the entire second season himself—a rarity for showrunners, and even more so for showrunners who are also writers. He has also written four of this year’s first six episodes.

Not only is that an incredible work load for one person to handle, but, as this season is showing, it’s a treacherous one. Mr. Robot is no doubt Esmail’s show, and it must continue to be so, but it’s rarely a good thing when so much of a show’s DNA is concentrated in one individual. Others have directed entire seasons of TV shows with great success: Steven Soderbergh has helmed every episode of Cinemax’s The Knick, and Cary Fukunaga directed all of True Detective‘s great first season. But neither were involved in the writing, or the gigantic responsibility of running a TV show, like Esmail is.

To be fair, Mr. Robot is only one of many recent shows beset by major problems in their second seasons. In a great piece for Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz outlined this problem for television drama, citing Fox’s music dynasty show Empire and Lifetime’s reality TV dating satire UnREAL as two other shows suffering from sophomore slumps:

The questions that these shows once tantalized us with become a matter of housekeeping. When will the main character’s secret — the illness, the murder, the hidden identity — be revealed, and will he or she ever come to terms with the Traumatic Events that made them who they are? How long do we want to stick around until that happens, especially when the show is good but not revelatory, and when every episode runs 45 minutes or an hour, adding up to a story that could ultimately take 60 or 70 hours to consume in its entirety, if it keeps going for six or more seasons?

It’s really hard to make a good season of television. It’s even harder to make two good seasons of television in a row. And with so much other TV available, shows have a finite time to keep viewers invested. Some shows just get stale and same-y: Once-great TV series such as House of CardsHomeland, and (arguably) Game of Thrones, for example, no longer work as well as when they were new. (Most things don’t.)

Shows like HBO’s The Leftovers, which actually got better in its second season, are few and far between. Zeitz mentions FX’s The Americans as another show that improved in year two, and I’d add The Knick to the list of recent shows with stellar second seasons. But the overwhelming majority of American dramas that are lucky enough to get a second season fail to live up to the expectations set by their debuts.

I am still sufficiently invested in Mr. Robot‘s Elliot and his story to continue watching and hoping for a more cohesive narrative. And even as I struggle to make sense of what the show is trying to say, it draws me back in with moments of filmmaking brilliance, like the hacked smart home scene that played like its own self-contained short horror film.

But I’m not excited about the show anymore, and with each passing episode, it has become more of a chore to decipher what’s going on amidst all the show’s form-bending tricks and gimmicks.

I appreciate Mr. Robot‘s unflagging determination to respect its audience’s intelligence, and not to dumb down its narrative for the sake of mass appeal. Now, though, the show has devolved into a heady, unchecked mess. Either that, or I’m just not smart enough to get it.