Television Roundup: “Mr. Robot” 2.0 and the third season of “Bojack Horseman”.
It took me a while to get on the “Mr. Robot” train. The first season’s pilot episode was a feast for the senses that I felt was burdened by a voiceover that played like a tepid re-imagining of the first chapter of an unwritten Chuck Palahniuk book. “Put the remote down. Go out and get yourself a grande mocha foam latte. Go back to living your life as a slave of the state.” The pronounced cynicism of creator Sam Esmail’s fictional creation — Elliot, played by wonderful young actor Rami Malek, a sort of hacker Robin Hood with a checkered past — almost seemed adolescent in its anger, at least when not properly mediated.
Of course, it was foolish of me to make this assessment merely one episode in: not only does Elliot’s voiceover find new nuances and dimensions in its rancor, but “Mr. Robot” as a show has also grown incalculably better, eventually turning into an artful, frightening look at what society might turn into if the tenants of our modern foundation should crumble into dust. “Mr. Robot” is ultimately an important show because it employs a cutting-edge visual language that can be seen nowhere else on T.V., as well as plenty of gallows humor and some truly terrific performances, in service of a dark cautionary tale about our addictions to the luxuries of 21st century life. The relentless paranoia of that first episode eventually blossomed into something recognizable and all too eerily real. It’s the same fear millions of Americans have when they consider that Donald Trump may very well gain admittance to nuclear access codes, or when one stops to consider just how Orwellian the American surveillance state has become. Except now, it’s been channeled into can’t-miss television.
The pessimism of “Mr. Robot” has only ballooned in size since the apocalyptic events of the season one finale, and yet the show on a whole turns out to be all the better for it. Stylish gloom is “Mr. Robot’s” preferred operating mode, and with Esmail writing and directing every installment of season two, the show remains committed to its glass-half-empty vision of humanity eating itself alive when the rats come home to roost. Those who find “Robot” inscrutable or difficult or off-putting in its negative outlook of the world are unlikely to be swayed by this new batch of episodes, since Esmail seems (admirably, I think) uninterested in meeting his audience halfway. Instead, he throws us into the eye of the storm caused by the game-changing events of Zero Day and expects us to sink or swim. “Mr. Robot’s” refusal to spoon-feed its audience might be a trying experience if the show weren’t so gorgeous to behold: this is, with the possible exception of HBO’s “The Night Of,” the most visually engrossing hour of television you’ll see on a small screen in 2016. And yet, “Mr. Robot” is, as always, more than just a simple exercise in audio-visual pyrotechnics. Anchored by Malek’s enigmatic, soulful performance and the show’s typically haunting and elliptical images, “Mr. Robot” is about as much fun as you’re likely to have watching the end of the world as we know it.
So, of course, a lot has gone down since the events of Season One. Elliot is now living off the grid after implicating himself in the FSociety world hack and discovering that his grizzled mentor, the Mr. Robot of the title (an unusually charismatic Christian Slater) is actually is biological father. The FSociety hack has thrown the world into very literal chaos, from which it is still struggling to recover. Darlene, who we now know is Elliot’s estranged sister, is doing her best to fight a losing war against the powers that be who wish to see FSociety brought to its knees. Then, of course, there’s the matter of Tyrell Wellick, the cold-eyed, sociopathic corporate suit who is currently in hiding following the gruesome murder that counted as season one’s most sickening set piece.
When Season 2.0 opens in its two-part premiere episode, Elliott is trapped in a very particular, very deadening routine: living at his mother’s house, continually having uneventful lunch with his “Seinfeld”-obsessed new friend (rapper Joey Bada$$) and haunted by the specter of Mr. Robot himself, who appears to Elliott in terrifying daytime hallucinations. Our heroes — if that’s the right word — are still railing against the Invisible Hand, the shapeless, all-consuming omnipotent few who secretly control the world. “Mr. Robot” is not only radical for considering cyber criminals as figures of nobility and courage, but for casting an Egyptian-American, brown-skinned actor as its nominal protagonist. Elliott’s pronounced ethnicity gives his disenchantment with society a uniquely political edge, and it’s a deceptively radical touch on an otherwise lily-white television landscape.
I’m only three episodes into “Robot’s” second season, and it remains to be seen where the show will go from here. While season one ended on such a high note that eclipsing it seems all but impossible, it’s as clear as it’s ever been that Esmail is firmly in control of the tone and timbre of the story he wants to tell here. Malek continues to give one of the more fascinatingly understated performances on television: with his bugged-out eyes and buried glimmers of childlike wonder, Elliott is a new kind of television antihero. He’s unusually vulnerable, prone to error, desperate for solitude, and Malek makes him fascinating to watch. Portia Doubleday is also a quiet powerhouse as Angela Moss, Elliott’s straight-laced childhood best friend who is climbing the shaky ladder at Evil Corp, and while Slater appears only teasingly in the first couple of episodes, he’s all but perfected Robot’s well-defined blend of hopelessness and resolve by this point. “Mr. Robot” won’t ease your nerves or make you any less afraid of the increasingly horrifying world we inhabit, but it will perhaps help you to understate the motivations of those who live on its fringes. As Elliott’s friend says when discussing a particularly uneventful episode of “Seinfeld,” “the human tradition is a straight-up tragedy, cuz.”
Speaking of straight-up tragedy, “Bojack Horseman”. Netflix’s popular dramedy is a different kind of show for grown-ups. It’s a hallucinogenic cartoon about a fallen actor (who is also a horse) living in exile in a strange version of Los Angeles where humans and animals coexist more or less peacefully. Unlike shows like “American Dad,” “Bojack” is not the kind of comedy that flaunts raunchy humor just for the sake of it, though creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg indulges in his fair share of smutty asides. “Bojack” also substantially less wacky than it was in its first season, having eased into its own heightened reality over three seasons so that it now plays as a fairly straightforward, sometimes solemn comic fable about a man — sorry, horse — whose constant efforts to find happiness and meaning in his own life are undermined by his own self-destructive tendencies. I realize this sounds like a highfalutin assessment for a show featuring a recurring character named Mr. Peanutbutter. But of course, “Bojack Horseman” is no ordinary show: it’s a blissful and inventive live-wire comedy whose delirious veneer masks a core of deep sadness. And the show’s third season might be its best yet: the creators have taken some truly audacious structural gambles, almost all of which pay off, and the while the show is as ruthlessly funny in its mockery of Tinseltown phoniness as it has ever been, it’s also a surprisingly touching look at a very modern kind of depression.
It’s kind of amazing the many levels on which “Bojack Horseman” functions. Individual scenes are structured so that jokes unspool in front of the audience like tiny Russian dolls: look away for a moment, and you’ll miss a priceless gag. And yet the show is also increasingly bleak, unafraid to look into the troubled mind of a vindictive narcissist whose many attempts at rectifying his awful behavior are ultimately thwarted by his own towering self-regard. Bojack is like the protagonists of shows like “Californication” and movies like “Hurlyburly,” David Rabe’s play about a pack of bitter, drugged-up former actors, but stripped of the wish-fulfillment-tinged bravado that the creators so often imbue these stories with.
Waksberg and his writers don’t lean on Bojack’s selfishness or boorish behavior for laughs because they don’t have to: “Bojack Horseman” has one of the funniest ensembles of any animated comedy since “The Simpsons,” and characters such as the perpetually enthused Golden Labrador/sitcom actor Mr. Peanutbutter and Todd Chavez, Bojack’s weirdly asexual couch potato bestie, have come to own their own storylines that exist independently of the greater narrative. As such, “Bojack Horseman” has graduated from being an acidic takedown of Hollywood bullshit to being a formally ambitious and weirdly touching odyssey about the lengths some of us will go to in order to sabotage our own happiness.
When “Bojack” Season three properly opens, the hard-drinking horse is doing a press junket for “Secretariat,” the shameless Awards-season drama we saw him working on last year. Turns out Bojack’s hopes that the movie would turn his career around were well-founded: our hero has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, where he’ll be competing against big shots like Jerj Cloonerz (the Hollywoo equivalent of George Clooney, a grinning matinee idol with a penchant for prankery) and big issue films like “City of Aids”. In spite of his newfound adulation from the public, however, Bojack is no less miserable. Of course, a CGI horse secretly replaced him after personal conflicts with the director led Bojack to exit “Secretariat” early, but it’s our hero’s personal life that’s all but gone up in flames. The childlike Todd (Aaron Paul) is starting to figure the world out for himself, which means learning the finer nuances of sex and flirtation and, in one episode, inheriting $8 million and then blowing it at the ice cream shop. Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), the ambitious feline talent agent who is also Bojack’s sometimes-lover, has grown tired of our main character’s seemingly ceaseless shitty behavior and is now running her own agency with the help of an emotionally vacant, man-bun sporting power player voiced with deadpan assurance by Diedrich Bader. The main narrative push of season three involves Bojack’s attempts to reconstruct his own past, reaching out to old friends that include a pretentious arthouse director whose once attempted to revive Bojack’s career after the success of his beloved sitcom “Horsin’ Around”, and also Sarah Lynn, a drug-addicted, casually promiscuous young actress who played Bojack’s sitcom daughter and whose late-series bender with nominal colt culminates in a moment of genuine tragedy.
There’s a lot of self-loathing and general despair in “Bojack Horseman,” and it might be tough stuff to swallow if the show weren’t so effortlessly crazy-funny at every turn. Some of the better characters from the previous seasons have returned, including character-actress-turned-murderous-fugitive Margot Martindale and J.D. Salinger, who is currently moving into a Westside office unit that is EXACTLY nine stories tall, a rare joke for literature buffs in a show packed with insider-y showbiz satire. “Bojack” season three also boasts perhaps the most inventive structure of any of its seasons to date: the fourth episode, “Fish Out of Water,” unfolds entirely without dialogue as Bojack attends a movie premiere under the water (a diving helmet prevents him from ever speaking) and ends up acting as a surrogate father to an abandoned baby seahorse. The episode is bursting with wildly imaginative physical comedy and mind-altering visual landscapes that suggest Sofia Coppola doing Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” — that’s how fucking beautifully weird this show can be. Another episode finds Bojack cycling through a laundry list of his past mistakes while attempting to cancel his newspaper subscription. It’s that kind of show.
There is pain and sorrow and even death in “Bojack Horseman’s” Hollywoo landscape, but there are also small, delicate moments of connection, like when Princess Carolyn finds out that the one person she’s sexually and emotionally attracted to just happens to be a mouse (“we should probably just get this over with,” is the priceless response she gets). “You have to do better,” Bojack is chastised by Todd in one genuinely harrowing post-party sequence, but it’s a piece of advice that the “Bojack Horseman” team seem to have taken to heart. Three seasons in and showing no signs of slowing down, “Bojack Horseman” remains piercing and emotionally resonant and gut-bustingly funny: an anthropomorphic funhouse that’s also a cracked reflection of 21st-century disenchantment.
Grades: “Mr. Robot,” B+. “Bojack Horseman,” A.