One of the constraints facing modern television in the United States is the rise of twin adversaries in the shape of legal (Netflix, Amazon Prime etc) and illegal ways of watching/streaming shows. Executives have to tackle the headache of dwindling audience figures among young people and the ease of availability in which they can find flagship shows through nefarious means.
According to Nielsen’s most recent ‘Total Audience Report’, those aged between 18-24 are watching less tv on average year by year. Basically, a large proportion of the audience now consume shows online. Of course all major channels now have on demand services, but the appetite for more has seen leaks become more prevalent. This was the case with HBO’s Game of Thrones, when the penultimate episode of season 6 ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ leaked a few hours before it was scheduled for broadcast.
TV companies have been kept on their toes in this cutthroat market and some have even risen to the higher stakes. On Sunday, the USA Network decided to preempt the problem and leak the first part of their season premiere for Mr Robot across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Expecting a Q & A with stars of the show, fans were then surprised to discover the start of season two unfolding before their eyes.
It remains to be seen whether ratings will receive a boost or not, but the stunt certainly generated some buzz. The ploy very much conforms with the content of the show, which won the best television Golden Globe this year and propelled lead actor Rami Malek into stardom. Mr Robot tells the story of Elliot Alderson (Malek), a computer hacker who works as an engineer for cybersecurity company Allsafe. He is recruited to an underground hacker group called fsociety by a mysterious anarchist simply known as Mr Robot, played by Christian Slater of True Romance fame.
Fsociety’s purpose is to take down E Corp, one of the world’s largest data corporations, and rid the world of consumer debt. The twist is that E Corp is one of Allsafe’s most important clients, pitting Elliot in a blurred moralistic battle of what’s right or wrong and whose good or evil. Oh, he also suffers from clinical depression, delusions, social anxiety disorder and is a raging drug addict for good measure.
The show is situated in New York City and zips along at breakneck speed. It is slickly produced, beautifully shot and has an ace soundtrack including tunes from FKA Twigs, Perfume Genius, ScHoolboy Q, Mos Def and Brian Eno. It features a stellar cast of mostly emerging or previously unheard of actors. Swede Martin Wallström is particularly impressive as the sinister and slimy E Corp big dick Tyrell Wellick in his first American TV or movie role.
Mr Robot is the brainchild of Sam Esmail, an Egyptian-American director from New York. Esmail, who directed the 2014 comedy drama Comet, originally envisioned the project as a feature film. The idea for the central storyline came from a visit to his ancestral home, where his young cousins had taken part in the successful 2011 revolution against President Mubarak. “They were angry and they channelled that into something really positive, using technology, using social media,” he said when interviewed by the BBC last year.
The most impressive aspect of the show is how it marries the very personal problems of addiction, claustrophobic isolation and depression with more external issues such as global debt crisis, reckless capitalism, corruption and collective greed. In a sense, it is a quintessentially 21st century piece of art.
When the first season screened last summer, critics hailed it, with the depiction of computer hacking particularly praised for the unusual level of accuracy. That devotion to detail is in part due to the presence of Michael Bazzell, a former FBI cybercrime investigator, as an advisor to Esmail. Speaking to Vulture, he explained why the exactness is encouraged. “To give Sam credit, the moment either myself or Kor Adana, another technical adviser, says something isn’t right with the technology, the world stops until we get it right. There are no shortcuts or cheat sheets.”
Season two is set to focus more on the law enforcement element and introduce more characters, including Elliot’s friend Leon, played by Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$. The end of season one was pretty conclusive, so it is intriguing to see where they go next. Encouragingly, the show-runners and network executives appear to be working harmoniously to ensure that they stay ahead of the curve.