Friday, July 10, 2015
The most important piece of advice I've ever received, when it comes to telling story is this: Get to it. Don't futz around. Don't dwell on your themes or your social commentary. If you got a story, whip it out, let's see it. If you have a journey planned, I better be on the road by the time Episode One ends. In fact, I better have already made my first pit stop for snacks and a toilet.
I will admit that Humans is not a perfect show, but it certainly gets to it, right quick.
Humans is a show about robots. It is set in an alternate reality where robots are so advanced that they can perfectly copy humans. They lack original thought or sentience (some exceptions may apply), but they are capable enough to have replaced humans in most manual labor jobs. The show follows several characters over several different points in time. The main character, Anita, is a nanny-bot seeming to develop sentience. But the show doesn't linger on the mystery of whether or not she can think for very long. Instead, it jumps into the past where she and a few other robots are on the run.
Escaping from linear storytelling is just about the best choice the show makes. Instead of getting bogged down in any one stage in this journey, we get the best of all worlds. We see Anita beginning to develop sentience in a domestic scenario. We see how the various members of the family react to her. But just when the show starts to circle the drain, we jump to a high stakes fugitive plot, with plenty of seedy underbelly. And, just when that gets a little pointless, we get a side story of a man who can't say goodbye to his out-of-date robot, because it is the last vestige of the old man's dead wife. And, by jumping around, the show allows the audience to ruminate on grander themes, to read between the lines.
But it's not just the plot that kicks in at high gear. The show wastes no time showing off its stylistic ace in the hole: The Uncanny Valley. This is a term that is meant to demonstrate the level of discomfort people feel when presented with things that are almost, but not exactly, lifelike. Japanese androids, the animated films of Robert Zemeckis, and Jason Derulo, all fall into this category, where by being so close to human, but not quite there, we are uncomfortable with their presence. Somehow, through computer effects, practical effects, and very good acting, this show has managed to put actual people into the Uncanny Valley. So much of the tension of the domestic scenes is created by the very presence of a woman who is not quite human. And this is why the show's name - Humans - makes sense. The whole purpose of the show is to present the audience with a human and then tell them over and over, "this is not a human." The cognitive dissonance created makes for a perpetual unease, that occasionally boils over into quasi-terror.
I should point out that Humans is not perfect. Oftentimes, this episode opts to explain a philosophical concept, rather than demonstrate it. A few early plot points are trampled during the mad dash to narrative gold. And the family doesn't stray too far from stereotype. But most TV families are boring. At least this one has a nightmare robot creepily cleaning the table while they eat.
What is the primary function of a first chapter? I've been thinking about this a lot. Whether it be TV, comics, books, or whatever kind of story you are telling, what must your introduction accomplish, to be successful? I've read a lot of ideas on the subject. I've heard the first chapter's function is to bring the audience into the world, introduce the characters and themes, or establish the story's hook. But for every proposed purpose, there is a counter example. There is only one function that every good Chapter One must accomplish, from which all other qualities derive. It is this: Chapter One must make you want to read/watch Chapter Two.
I lay all this out because, while Mr. Robot has many merits, the pilot doesn't make me want to watch Episode Two. And that's a shame because this is a good episode.
Mr. Robot is a show that is not actually about a robot. It's about a young man named Elliot (Rami Malek) with exceptional computer skills and very poor personal skills. Elliot is a cyber security specialist by day and a hacker vigilante by night. He finds people who he suspects of being wicked in some way, invades their cyber life and eventually either blackmails them or just turns them in to the authorities. He also clearly has a host of mental disabilities including, but not limited to, Social Anxiety, Delusions, Autism, and Depression. He then meets the eponymous "Mr. Robot" who is actually just Christian Slater. "Mr. Robot" brings Elliot into a ragtag group of hackers bent on crushing the world's largest corporate conglomerate, which is actually called Evil Corp (not kidding). Elliot agrees to take on the fight because of course he would, being that he is a disenfranchised hacker, and in the end, the battle begins.
That's about it. The good guys and bad guys are established. The world is established - a deeply subjective world, as it seems we are seeing it through the eyes of our delusional hero. And the hook - the most accurate portrayal of computer hacking to ever grace the small screen - is thoroughly established.
But there are fundamental cracks in all these ideas that undermine the exceptional tone and thoughtfulness of this episode. As for the characters, Malek is a gem who manages to thoroughly captivate us from the second he appears on screen. But Slater is not really the best foil. He's supposed to be a charismatic leader, but he comes across as smarmy, and little else.
The idea of a world seen through the eyes of a conspiracy nut is interesting, but also really boring. The show is chock full of tirades against the modern world that lack the eloquence and passion of say, Do the Right Thing or The Social Network. These tirades wind up feeling more like a checklist of things young disenfranchised people might hate.
And then there's the hook: the hacking. I am pleased that we've moved beyond the game of Snood that used to pass for hacking in fiction, but this show still fumbles trying to find how best to mine drama from computer hacking. One scene in particular in Mr. Robot puts Elliot in a server room, frantically trying to switch to a backup server before the primary cuts out. This scene is punctuated with lines of code and a blinking circle. No amount of dramatic music is ever going to make this scene anything but a guy on a laptop typing while a circle on a monitor blinks. It's just not very dramatic. No one's life is in danger. The stakes are abstract, ethereal. Other scenes use hacking more effectively, as a way to search and snoop. A fact-finding scene, or even a world-establishing scene. But with most of the high points of the story being computer related, the show winds up stuck with limited stakes. I'm not sure what will happen if our hero fails, and I'm not sure I care.
It should be mentioned that this is a USA show, and it is a massive step in a new direction for the blue skies network. The show is brooding and thoughtful in a way that's not entirely annoying. There is lots of sex and drugs and other things that would upset people looking for reruns of Burn Notice. But in other ways, the show stays true to its USA roots. Slater at one point says that the best way to take down Evil Corp is one executive at a time, outlining the show's procedural hook. Every episode we'll be taking down another Wall Street villain. It's pure fantasy, and I'm not sure if the show is willing to engage with the realities of what they are doing. I doubt we'll ever get a shot of the mean executive they framed, in prison, weeping, alone in the dark, with only the fading memories of his children's faces to keep him comfort.
I'm not sure how to give a letter grade to this episode as it was very entertaining, yet I doubt I'll ever watch Episode Two. It failed as a pilot, but it succeeded as a brief venture into the world of cyber warfare and crushing loneliness.
I'll give it a B.