One perk of getting up in the middle of the night to feed a new baby is that you get the opportunity to catch up on some of the shows you’ve been meaning to make time for. I recently finished the two seasons of Mr. Robot (2015-) and the one season of Legion (2017-) currently available (both have been renewed for an additional season and will be back in October 2017 and February 2018, respectively).
What these shows have in common is a reputation for innovation, some great characters/acting, and untrustworthy narratives. There have been plenty of shows that have dream sequences, hallucinations, or virtual reality excursions (I’m think of you, Star Trek: Next Generation (1987-1994) and your over-reliance on the holodeck) but these things are typically acknowledged quickly and explained away. There are also shows that fans imagine to be fundamentally dishonest, like the people who are convinced that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) did not wake up from a coma to find himself in the Zombie Apocalypse on The Walking Dead (2010-) and the final episode will return to the hospital where he is still recovering from his gunshot wound. But that’s pure conjecture and unrelated to anything the show has done or implied. What Legion, and Mr. Robot in particular, are doing, is to repeatedly direct you down misleading paths and then change the rules of the road on you; making you wonder if you are ever getting a real answer or just another mirage.
Just for knowing, there are no robots in Mr. Robot. I spent most of the first season disappointed by this fact and hate for you to suffer the same fate. Basically, it’s the story of a socially awkward I.T. guy and his oddball, nerdy friends, who are try to make a better world by destroying E Corp (the Evil Corporation) that stands for everything they believe is wrong with the world. As one of the show’s diatribes puts it:
“Is any of it real? I mean, look at this, look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills! Psychological warfare in the form of advertising! Mind altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media! Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century! We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs, while we tossed the remnants into the ever expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers, jumping up and down on digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real.”
Of course these sentiments have been around long before the turn of the Twenty-First Century (Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song about the dull conformity of suburban life, “Little Boxes” is but one example that comes readily to mind). Mr. Robot is very reminiscent of Fight Club (1999), including the fact that the self-proclaimed heroes don’t have anything of substance to offer the world, they just want to rip it down and hope something better comes along. Of course that assumes that we know what the actual motives and thinking is behind these characters, particularly the mentally confused protagonist, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek).
As I said, the characters are great and one of the best parts is just how uncomfortable most of them seem to be in their own skin. The show isn’t afraid of awkward silences or holding on same one for what might seem “too long” by conventional standards. The stylized colors and framing also stand out. Where as a typical show might show you something like this:
Mr. Robot makes all the characters feel more isolated and unimportant. Lost in a world they don’t understand anymore than we do.
Nearly everyone is dealing with issues that have left them severely damaged and trying their best to cope with reality by one dysfunctional means or another. Okay, so it’s not the happiest show (to say the least) but it does have moments of dark humor and a tense, anything could happen next, feeling that sucks you in. I just hope they know where they are headed. In the post-Breaking Bad (2008-2013) world it’s extremely difficult to be a truly great series – the kind that will end up in that Hall of Fame in the sky – without a strong endgame (nobody wants another Lost (2004-2010) situation).
Legion is more lighthearted than Mr. Robot. Sure, it deals with mental illness and it has a far greater death toll, but it’s a superhero show and the stakes just aren’t as high. It too leaves you guessing about how real each scene is (Are we in a character’s mind or the “astral plane” or something else?) but it gives you a fairly concrete explanation for everything by the end (in farfetched comic book speak).
What I love about Legion is the way it handles life inside a person’s mind/dreams/subconscious (whatever it is). Particularly once you get into the later episodes and they return to the mental institution, “Clockworks” (Yes, there is a clear homage to Kubrick going on here). There are some well thought out details to the inner space of the mind that feel very fresh compared to hokier versions you’ve seen many times before. If you know the Legion character from X-Men comics you’ll find this version significantly different and perhaps a little less compelling. Even the “Legion” name doesn’t seem to make sense in this version. We’ll see where they go with that in season two.
The protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens) and his love interest, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) are fine but the most compelling character is Aubrey Plaza’s friend/enemy character, Lenny Busker. She’s funny, scary, crazy, sane, sexy, and repulsive – depending on the moment – and always spot on. It makes me wish it was Lenny’s show and not David’s. There is also a brilliant performance by Jemaine Clement, who plays Oliver Bird, a man dislocated from his body for twenty years. The quirky, inadvertent humor and touching moments his character brings to the production are unexpectedly charming. I look forward to seeing more of Oliver and Lenny on screen together next time around (hopefully).
I could go on but I don’t want to say anything that would spoil the twists, turns, or big reveals that these shows have to offer. I would, however, enjoy hearing what other people think of them, so leave a comment and let me know.