Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Playing Hide And Seek With Mr. Robot

     - "You're hiding again, Elliot"

     Summer was once a time for re-runs, pen-pals, and water parks. Network-era norms dictated that consumers be baited with the smell of new fall shows just in time for Chevrolet to roll out next year's model. Because of the medium's commercial mandate, this relationship was inextricable. In today's post network-era, television has become truly nonlinear and patterns of consumption have allowed for multiple revenue streams. Subscription, narrowcasting, and time-shifting have all become a part of the cultural industry. In other words, don't be caught at sleepover camp during the summer or you might miss the series finale of Breaking Bad or the premiere of Orange is The New Black. Just this June, captivated audiences held their breath for HBO’s second season of True Detective. Finally sophisticated programming was season blind—and summer really sizzles. 

   As it came to be, the real breakout show of the summer was USA’s Mr. Robot. Despite premiering on a network that isn't synonymous with sophisticated programing, and with a title that doesn't immediately resonate, Mr. Robot is an unlikely champion of multifarious pleasures.

Mr. Robot could be described as a psychological thriller that follows the neurotic moves of a young and socially inept cyber-security engineer who joins allegiance with a hacker group in attempt to bring down the multi-national conglomerate responsible for his father’s death. But that would be a grave oversimplification. What Mr. Robot offers viewers is a fair chance to explore and celebrate what television is capable of in terms of narrative complexity and cinematic imagination. 

  Creator Sam Esmail (Comet) initially began writing Mr. Robot as a feature length film. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter he confesses that by page 90, he wasn’t even through the first act. He was able to sell the show as a complete story with a structured timeline and a life expectancy of 4 or 5 seasons, a pitching trend not common among series today. In other words, the arousing storytelling of season one is merely exposition—act one of a fully imagined story. 

  The postmodernist Mr. Robot immediately displayed what audiences recognized as narrative markers for Fight Club and common conjecture was an anticipated facsimile. While this story is clearly its own, some semblances have been served and satisfied. This was acknowledged, I think cleverly, at the end of episode 9, "eps1.8_m1rr01ng.qt", in the final scene between Tyrell (Martin Wallström) and Elliot (Rami Malek) when a soft and precious piano cover of The Pixies’ "Where is My Mind" gently shepherds us into the credits.
Maxence Cyrin covers "Where is my Mind" in this chilling scene
     It is a consistently agreed upon position that hacker culture is not fairly represented in media today. While I lack the expert knowing to testify on behalf of Mr. Robot, CTO of WatchGaurd Technologies, Corey Nachreiner, contributes weekly to GeekWire.com to critically review each episode. Nachreiner examines an episode's achievements or shortcomings with regard to information security or InfoSec. If you care at all about the show’s fidelity to the subject, then this is a must read and should be considered a companion text to the series. Esmail, himself, has stressed his commitment to using real computers with live screens and authentic code over the standard television practice of using green screens and generic commands; the trappings of diminution the genre has suffered so much of. Even a civilian can appreciate the charm of the series’ episode titles. Every episode title is structured using typical file naming conventions that end with unique file formats. 

  For a show that could so easily be gendered, it is with tremendous relief that Mr. Robot passes both the Bechdel Test and the Russo Test. To have a show on cable today where the protagonist is a cis male working in a male dominated field, whose drug abuse, misanthropy, and mental illness are often placated or entirely dismissed could be a modern day tragedy, in fact we’ve read those headlines. There’s something truly fragile and trustworthy about Elliot. His character is almost completely defined by the women in his life. The choices he makes are often influenced by Angela, Krista, Shayla, or Darlene; even the haunting flashbacks to his mother’s abuse affect him in a way that appear to make him more cautious. 
Gloria Rueben, Frankie Shaw, Portia Doubleday, and Cary Chaikin
     Mr. Robot's fractured reality is an inviting part of the narrative, escaping the tradition of omniscient story telling. Even Elliot's voice-over breaks convention, presenting a reflexive, restrictive, and unreliable diegesis. The larger world outside of Elliot Alderson is lit through the eyes of other key characters. Some of these character's worlds have been so exquisitely developed, like in the case of Angela and Tyrell, that attention will completely wander to them as their own hero journeys play out.
     Another availing achievement for Mr. Robot is the superlative casting of Christian Slater. As the titular character, Slater broadcasts his wonted role of unrefined mutineer, with a pinch of debonair, for perfectly balanced results. This is possibly the best prime-time use of the actor to date.

  Visually, Mr. Robot presents a striking compositional power that is present in Sam Esmail's freshman film, Comet. 
     In Mr. Robot, continuity editing is not king. Though the axis of action is never broken, canted frames and an unconventional shifting of high and low angles beg you to become an active viewer. Viewers must distinguish every image between presentation and representation. What is being conveyed in the unusual distances kept between us and the characters? What can we glean from the often monochromatic color of a particular scene? How are some of the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements happening entirely in the lower third frame? Who breaks these rules (and successfully)? Perhaps this is just a hallmark of good story telling—when the anti-establishment theme of the narrative has also informed the cinema? 

     Possibly the most viscerally compelling evidence of Esmail's cinematic acuity can be witnessed within the first few minutes of each episode. I'm referring to those stunning title cards. Each episode is distinct with different imagery and transitions but always with the same, and almost painful, implication—this story is going to get inside of you

Below is a supercut created by and contributed by Matthew Mammola. This, even when watched unaccompanied to the larger text, communicates the show's most rudimentary thesis. 

In every effort to satisfy the diegesis, the soundtrack or mise-en-bande of Mr. Robot is completely rousing. Every noise, every sound fills the expertly lit spaces with tension, excitement, or despondency. These atmospheres are sometimes created by a composed score, baroque pop, electronica, hip hop, indie rock, or a philharmonic orchestra. Music tenderly defines the character's shared moments and isolating moods. This can be subtle and infectious like the scores composed by Mac Quayle, it can be organic and occur diegetically like Animotions’s "Obsession" or Sonic Youth’s "Kool Thing"or these moments can be powerfully obtrusive, deepening all fervor like Neil Diamond’s "If you Go Away", The Cure’s "Pictures of You", Len's "Steal My Sunshineand FKA Twigs "Two Weeks"

The season finale airs Wednesday September 2nd on USA at 10/9C
You can watch previous episodes at iTunes, Amazon, and limited access on Hulu

     The season finale was postponed by a week under circumstances that make this Chekhov's Gun alert a nonessential observation, but here it is.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

iZombie, You Zombie, We All Zombie

Rose McIver
iZombie Tuesday 9 ET/PT on The CW

   How you responded last year to the news that the CW would be producing new series, iZombie, has a few different implications:

  1.  You are a Romero purist who still loyally watches AMC’s The Walking Dead even after most of us packed it in because  a) we understand Atlanta, GA is more black than white and b) when you find out everyone is infected with the zombie strain—you don’t kill the only scientist you’ve come across for 2 seasons. If this describes you, you were also likely offended by the suggestion that a zombie can be attractive, solve crimes, and have relationship problems. 
  2.  You are a Marshmallow. A die-hard Thomas/Ruggerio-Wright fan who would watch anything with their name on it. If this describes you, you were likely a Veronica Mars kickstarter backer, and when you meet someone else who watched Party Down you have a friend for life. 
  3.  You had no idea, you didn’t care, and you still don’t. 
  4.  You are a less extreme shade of one of the three, or demonstrate hues of all of the above.
Either way, here is what you should know about iZombie and why you should be watching it. 

Rob Thomas was, in fact, scheduling pitches for his own zombie apocalypse show when the news of Darabont’s deal with AMC broke. It was many years later that Warner Bros. approached Thomas with the idea of adapting DC/Vertigo comic, iZOMBIE (Chris Roberson and Michael Allred). They were soliciting on behalf of the CW for another compelling female lead. After completing the Veronica Mars movie, Thomas recruited Diane Ruggerio-Wright, his right hand on Veronica Mars and also a self-proclaimed comic book nerd and zombie zealot, to help write the show. The pair resuscitated the worn out and predictable zombie genre, placing it in, as Ruggeri-Wright says, "part of the pop culture”, and paying much credit to the source material (the comic of the same name) and the 2013 feature film, Warm Bodies. The previously heavily invoked parameters of the zombie genre have been begging to be exploited and subverted. True fans of television will be grateful for how the medium can stretch the expectations of a zombie show while also establishing it’s own preternatural rules and story universe.  
iZOMBIE (Chris Roberson, Michael Allred) DC/Vertigo (2010)

The comic, iZOMBIE, is the DNA for the show, but production of the series for television dictated a few deviations. The protagonist Gwendolyn Price (Gwen Dylan), a recently undead gravedigger whose best friends are a ghost from the 1960s and a were-terrier, absorbs the memories of the people whose brains she must eat to maintain her own humanity. The comic has a rich and sometimes bemusing mythology that is disseminated in it’s 28 issues. iZOMBIE's supernatural monsters and world threatening theology tend to strike more of a Buffy chord than a Veronica tone—two comparisons that fans and critics are have been busy debating. 
Strong female lead

    If I wish to stay true to this essay's epigrammatic tone I have to omit further discussion of the “strong female lead” place card the network put on the table (and the frustration that invariably follows every conversation regarding the burden of representation in storytelling). I only hope we can agree that the comic iZOMBIE, the tv series iZombie, and the other three television series I will discuss, Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Tru Calling, all have strong female leads, generically speaking. But it is not this label alone that has brought so much attention to these show's congruencies. 

While there has been no shortage of great television series and diverse characters in recent years, it is difficult to dispute that the conclusions of Buffy and Veronica didn’t leave somewhat of a hole in prime time. Those two shows accomplished a considerable amount with regard to genre, fan culture, and female empowerment. They have been celebrated, scrutinized, academically praised, and even adopted by the next generation of viewers. It is because of this vacancy—this desire for something supernormal that is still very much grounded in emotional reality—that tv producers and tv consumers alike are hopeful to name iZombie as successor.

So why are people comparing these shows? What do they have in common and where do they diverge?

Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas

   Both Buffy and Veronica’s stories originate in high school and depict some very dark storylines including rape. In both series the boyfriend is apprised of the protagonist’s abilities/adversities, both operate at times without their mother, and both make the transition to college (the kiss of death for most teen dramas). The heroines are quick-witted, sharp, and don’t take shit from anyone. Veronica, in spite of her reputation and recent alienation from the cool kids club, has much more confidence and takes things in stride. She may be a pariah but while everyone in Neptune is floundering behind their secrets, Veronica has nothing to lose and this makes her fearless. Buffy Summers finds strength in numbers (i.e. the Scooby Gang, Angel, Spike, and the potential slayers) but she still very much carries the “bare it alone” burden that Liv Moore (iZombie) feels and she is habitually making sacrifices. Buffy is a hero in many rights, most notably for saving the %$# damn world from demons and hell monsters.

To be compared to these characters is both the biggest compliment and the most intimidating expectation. 
Kristen Bell; Sarah Michelle Gellar

*From this point forward, the article contains numerous spoilers for both iZombie and Tru Calling*

There is a fourth show I would like to mention, as I haven’t seen it in any discussion yet. I find iZombie to be worthy of comparison to Fox’s Tru Calling (2003-2005, John Harmon Feldman). 

Zach Galifianakis; Eliza Dushku

     It is difficult to overlook the irony that Tru Davies, a morgue attending who relives days and saves the lives of the prematurely deceased, could possibly be the only one capable of saving Olivia "Liv" Moore, but we still have a rat named Hope, and a chance that Ravi might find a cure. At a glance, this is what they share in common: 

There are bold differences between these two programs but none as glaring as this one single contrast:  PACING

What Tru Callling took nineteen episodes to accomplish, iZombie achieved in the pilot. 

Important milestones in Season 1 of Tru Calling
Tru Calling

Those same milestones in the pilot of iZombie

There is a good reason Tru Calling is missing from the iZombie discussion. In truth, Tru Calling is absent from many discussions. An injustice that can be traced back to the show's absence from your living room. Why weren't you watching? Let’s look at the series' time slot. It aired on Fox on Thursday night—up against:

Extreme Makeover
WIll and Grace
The O.C.

   So who the f#@% is left to watch? Nearly every market is tuned into something else. In 2003, television audiences still largely watched by appointment and very few homes had adopted relatively contemporary recording practices like Tivo. Widespread integration of cable provider DVRs didn't occur for another year or two and even then Neilson didn’t begin to measure DVR numbers until 2006. 

   Why should you have been watching it? This Groundhog Day-esque procedural drama was Buffy alumn Eliza Dushku’s first starring television role and supporting characters played by Zach Galifianakis, Jason Priestley, and Shawn Reaves offer three more compelling reasons to watch. Most of the comedic relief was delivered from Shawn Reaves’s character, Harrison Davies, Tru’s layabout younger brother. Davis, the man without a last name, portrayed by Zach Galifianakis, might be the show's single most endearing character. It is easy to see that the character was written to be introverted, awkward, and perhaps a little slobbish, but Galifianakis fills the role with a debonair quality that feels sincere. It’s not a stretch to imagine a show with Davis as the leading man. Jason Priestley as Jack Harper is nefarious while being totally cool. He is a perfectly unsuspecting villain. You want to give Jack Harper your lunch money because he was suave enough to just ask for it. 

   Tru Calling is a pretty flower that opens slowly and reveals more beauty. You’ll wish you had more like this in your garden. But pretty isn’t everything. Or is it? On the Fox network, details of Dushku's shorts, tops, skirts, and lip glosses were meticulously plotted. There were many, if not far too many, shots of the track star running through the nondescript city. Dushku is undeniably sexy, but so was the story premise—and the battle between the two was fraught with lip gloss. I predict Tru Calling would have experienced more success and longevity at a network like the CW. 

The success of iZombie seems all but certain. The source material is distinctive and fun; the creators of the show have a strong voice and are invested in the characters they share with us; the series has a home on a network that not only campaigned for the show’s creation, but also continues to promote it with heart; the cast is winsome and engaging, the kind of  characters and actors you want to spend time with and get to know.  

iZOMBIE illustrator, Michael Allred, designed the opening credit sequence for the television series in a similar style and mood as the comic. The title cards used in the sequence are a perfect and succinct summary of what the pilot accomplishes.

The framework for the show is expertly established in the pilot, similar to Rob Thomas’ immaculate Veronica Mars. The rules, or zombie cosmology, are laid out in the course of the pilot. 
  1. Must eat brain to maintain “human" qualities (i.e. anti-Romero zombie).
  2. Side effect of eating brain, see visions of what the vessel saw/experienced. 
  3. Guess what? When you eat the brain you also absorb abilities or traits of the deceased.
  4. When you get excited/mad/threatened you go into “full-on zombie mode” or “raging out” (depending who you ask).

     Since its premiere in March, every episode has been a thrill ride and you find yourself wondering how you ever survived without a Zom/Dram/Rom/Com. The last three episodes leading up to the finale, “Mr. Berserk”, “Astroburger”, and “Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat”, have challenged Liv in ways you didn't think could happen in a Season 1 arch.  The emotional stakes have been raised for everyone, not just Liv, and tonight's finale will devastate your previous conjectures about what to expect from a television series. 

The season finale of iZombie premieres tonight at 9/8c on the CW.

Watch all of Season 1 on cwtv.com, Hulu, Amazon, or iTunes.