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‘Mr. Robot,’ ‘UnReal’ and the Perils of Big Swings in Second Seasons

It may not be entirely fair that “UnReal” and “Mr. Robot” are yoked together, at least in the minds of some TV critics and drama aficionados, but more than the proximity of their mid-2015 debuts unites them.

Both dramas engendered a lot of buzz by doing smart and provocative things with very tricky premises. Neither show was perfect — they had some first-season wobbles — but they were the kind of energetic rebels that weren’t afraid to play around with formulas and break the rules with frequently fruitful results.

And then they both lost the plot in their second seasons. That’s not a metaphor.

It’s hard not to wonder if the glut of television that led to the creation of these shows eventually brought about the self-inflicted wounds that marked their second years. The show’s creators (Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon for “UnReal” and Sam Esmail for “Mr. Robot”) got their shots in part because their networks — Lifetime and USA — wanted to make their mark with unusual and risk-taking fare.

Both Shapiro and Esmail were newcomers to TV, and their shows were evidence that letting in new voices was a smart decision, one that helped each network stand out from the crowd (which is an increasingly difficult proposition). Examining the mind of a hacker whose perspective could never quite be trusted was a fresh and bold idea, and the same was true of the story of the producers of a dating reality show, who controlled some narratives but found themselves taken in and thrown off course by others. These characters weren’t always very nice; in fact, they could be quite detestable at times. But they were rarely less than fascinating. 

Noxon left “UnReal” after its first season, and Esmail got the chance to direct every episode of his USA show (and write many of them) in its second year. As their creators gained power, it almost seemed as though both shows were nervous that viewers would lose interest in how their stories evolved. Whatever the explanation, both programs took big swings in year two, perhaps on the assumption that even buzzed-about shows need to go to very elaborate lengths to keep viewers on board.

In both cases, the stunts and twists actually detracted from what made the dramas appealing in the first place. 

Swerves and shocks that are set up well and paid off smartly are always welcome on any show, of course. But whiplash turns were not the primary things that drew me to either “Mr. Robot” or “UnReal.” It was the way, in their debut seasons, they tended to put compelling, complex characters in situations that wisely interrogated their viewpoints, tested their assumptions and built up and broke down their key relationships. In pursuit of amping up the pulpier aspects of their storylines, at times their characterizations threatened to — or did — spin out of control. 

“Mr. Robot” still has five episodes to go, and having seen tonight’s installment, I feel more confident about where it’s heading than I did a few weeks ago. I won’t give away anything (if I did, I can only imagine what fsociety would do to me). But I will note that it features yet another gimmick, but it’s one that pays off on a number of levels. When it comes to “Mr. Robot’s” second season, it’s not really stunts that are the problem, necessarily; it’s the effective deployment of them. 

As he did with last week’s installment, which offered both a fantastically dark yet hilarious sitcom homage and a slick heist thriller, Esmail demonstrates in this week’s episode that he has a reliable grasp of tone. But in much of the first half of the season, the truly inspired moments of “Mr. Robot” were interspersed with a whole lot of wheel-spinning. There were phenomenal scenes between Whiterose (a.k.a. Mr. Zhang) and Agent DiPierro, between Elliot and the mysterious Ray, and between Angela Moss and Phillip Price. I could have watched those strange and revealing conversations all day, but so many other elements of season two were repetitive and seemed to spin the story in circles. When Elliot finally made peace between himself and his Mr. Robot persona, it was a moving moment, but it took a very long time to get there. 

Part of the issue was that last week’s big “reveal” — that Elliot is really in prison — wasn’t even a little shocking, especially since the show has trained us to be very observant of even the smallest details and we’ve been primed not to trust Elliot’s narration. The street that Elliot’s mother allegedly lived on looked like something out of a desaturated version of “The Prisoner,” and other elements didn’t add up either (the house seemed strangely semi-furnished, the routine Elliot clung to seemed like something out of an institutional setting, and so on). It simply took too long for something many had guessed early on to be “revealed.” 

All in all, it feels as though the new season just got started in a serious way last week. Like most outings this season, tonight’s episode exceeds the usual 44-minute running time normally allotted to TV dramas, but it rarely feels long, and it is pulse-poundingly exciting more than once. It also works very well on a character level, and that’s not a coincidence: I didn’t just care about what was happening, I cared about who it was happening to.

I remain a “Mr. Robot” fan — even when it frustrates me, I appreciate its cast, its themes and its intensity. But in future seasons, I don’t need a big gimmick or yet more evidence that narrators can be unreliable; going to that well too many times is likely to produce diminishing returns, unless the explorations of undependability deepen the characters, their relationships or the show’s jabs at capitalism and connectivity.

As I noted in this essay about season one, the most intense moments of the first season of “Mr. Robot,” in particular the revelations about Elliot’s father and sister, landed with a great deal of emotional impact. If the remainder of this season of “Mr. Robot” is just a meaty string of character-driven episodes that lead to a powerful finale, and there are no more “gotcha” moments, that will be just fine by me.

As for “UnReal,” where to start? When it comes to the majority of the most recent season, I endured it rather than enjoyed it. By the time the show limped into its second-season finale, a lot of foundational damage had been done.

To think it started off so promisingly. But even when I wrote my season two review, which was based on two episodes, I did note that the show resembled a rollercoaster, one that could go off the rails at any moment. It didn’t waste a lot of time before it did just that. 

Stars Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, it should be noted, remained razor-sharp and uncommonly able to pull the humanity out of their characters, Rachel and Quinn, whenever possible. But the writing for the show did not make that possible often enough; in fact, it did a lot to flatten both women and drain the nuance out of them, out of their relationship and out of “Everlasting,” the show they run.

In its first season, “UnReal” consistently tried — and often succeeded — in doing two things: Making its two female protagonists and their friendship look believably complex and ambiguous, and deconstructing the storytelling behind a successful reality show. But as season two progressed, “UnReal” turned both women — especially Zimmer’s Quinn — into simplistic cartoon characters, and “Everlasting” was so all over the map that it became a much less interesting vehicle for examining the collision of feminism, television and power.

Season two threw so many things at both women — new beaus, a rape revelation, a fertility storyline, an assault on the set of “Everlasting,” not to mention a dozen other sloppy twists, including a kidnapped baby and a mental breakdown that seemed to last about five minutes each — that it was hard to keep track of any of it, let alone care about these gyrations. On both “Everlasting” and on “UnReal,” the storytelling proceeded in fits and starts, the pacing never made any sense, and none of the contestants ever really had a lot of nuance, which was one of the most stinging disappointments.

Back in season one, how the male suitor and how each woman played the game (or got played) was integral to the soup of objectification, self-awareness and self-promotion that was “Everlasting.” This season, all those formerly interesting elements were all just a smeary blur.

Characters were brought in and out or changed on a dime based on whatever careening turn the story was making in that moment (neither of the women’s new boyfriends had much staying power, for example). Very little of what transpired had much impact, because very few developments were given time to breathe. And “UnReal” went from messy to deeply insensitive when it included a story about a police shooting involving a black man — but the focus of that rushed, tin-eared storyline was all about how the white characters felt about the incident. In a season that was supposed to seriously delve into the complexities of race, as the producers explained after the finale, the African-American characters were afterthoughts, at best.

These aren’t the only shows that have gone a little or a lot off the rails in their second seasons; two recent examples include “Sleepy Hollow” and “Orphan Black,” one of which sort of course-corrected (the other one — “Sleepy Hollow” — not so much). Both “UnReal” and “Mr. Robot” have always played with combustible materials — that’s part of what made them exciting. But both can be very effective when they are considered and careful.  So let’s hope that both return to their core strengths in season three. Everyone loves a good redemption arc, after all.

Check back later for thoughts on tonight’s episode of “Mr. Robot.”

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