Tonight, Sept. 2, the season finale of the year’s best TV show will air. It won’t be on the perennially prestigious HBO or AMC. Instead, it’ll air on USA Network, a cable channel with a middling reputation, previously known best for the glossy legal drama Suits. But USA is living in Mr. Robot‘s world now, and so should the rest of us.
Creating a good TV show is preposterously difficult. Making something that is interesting, that critics will like, that can still appeal to the average Joe and reel in the advertisers that bankroll it is a combination that few new shows can pull off. Mr. Robot is doing it—on a network that has, arguably, never done it before. (Suits and Psych fans might disagree.)
So how did a show about a mentally ill hacker, in which a majority of the action takes place inside of computers, become what a variety of critics are calling the best show on television? What can other original shows learn from Mr. Robot‘s success?
Here are just a few plays that, if they’re smart, networks and show-runners will take from Mr. Robot‘s book.
Develop a unique visual style
A show’s visuals are the first thing a new viewer notices, and in this case they’re unlike anything else on television. Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff put it well when he said Mr. Robot‘s aesthetic “gives the show an overriding feeling of coherence and thematic unity that exists in few brand new shows.”
New shows—especially ones that involve doctors, cops, hospitals, or lawyers—tend to all look and feel the same. The show employs a number of directors, but chief among them is Sam Esmail, its writer-creator who is mostly responsible for the show’s vision. Many have tried comparing Mr. Robot‘s style to that of other directors (David Fincher? Steven Soderbergh? The anti-Wes Anderson?), but the truth is, it’s entirely unique, and that’s what makes it so successful.
What most critics seem to agree on is that the show blows up the rules of composition. Mr. Robot lives on the edges and in the corners of your screen. Rarely are subjects centered—and when they are, you can bet there’s a good reason for it. This short video demonstrates how the show puts its characters in strange spots, emphasizing the negative space around them:
To be sure, Mr. Robot is not the first show to utilize negative space. But it’s the first show to use it so consistently and creatively and develop and entire identity around it. Take the following scene from the third episode, for instance. The “mirror rehearsal” is a classic trope of TV and film, but have you ever seen it filmed with such urgency or anxiety?
Many of the show’s staples—an outcast protagonist, a plot to change the world, a mysterious global corporation—have been explored by countless shows, books, and films before. Mr. Robot doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, it shows you the same wheel you’ve been traveling on for years in a completely new light, revealing all over again why it’s such a cool thing in the first place.
Cast the right actors, not the most famous ones
Be honest, do you know who Rami Malek is? Were you familiar with his work before Mr. Robot? If not, you’ll certainly know who he is once he’s nominated for an Emmy award next year and gets a ton of huge roles thrown his way. Great TV shows rarely cast stars—they make them. (Did anyone know Jon Hamm, an unaccomplished actor who would often crash on friends’ couches, before Mad Men? How many people knew Bryan Cranston as anything other than “the dad from Malcolm in the Middle” before Breaking Bad?)
Some TV shows go out of their way to cast movie stars, assuming their names alone will help make a show successful. Sometimes, that works (House of Cards, True Detective season one). Other times, it doesn’t (The Following, True Detective season two).
But Mr. Robot took a more pragmatic approach. Rami Malek, previously showing up in bit parts (Night at the Museum and 24, for example) is the right actor to play Elliot Alderson; largely unknown Swedish actor Martin Wallström is the right actor to play Tyrell Wellick, a young American Psycho-esque businessman; Carly Chaikin is the right actor to play Darlene, the determined hacker with a sketchy past. Even Christian Slater—faded from his 1990s glory days after turns in several bad TV shows—is used to perfection as the titular leader of a vigilante hacking group.
Don’t talk down to your audience
The majority of tech-driven shows and movies eschew accuracy in favor of accessibility and often get things hilariously wrong. So perhaps Mr. Robot‘s boldest move is its willingness to use terms like “rootkit,” “honeypot,” and “.DAT files”—tech lingo that the average person is unlikely to understand.
The show doesn’t waste much time explaining what these things mean. It trusts its audience to learn about them either on their own or by watching the show and absorbing concepts on the fly. Mr. Robot isn’t 100% technically accurate, but it’s as realistic as it gets, and audiences are buying it.
That’s in stark contrast to something like CSI: Cyber, a CSI spinoff about the FBI cyber crime division. CSI: Cyber might have millions more viewers than Mr. Robot (14 million for its first episode, vs. Mr. Robot‘s 3 million), but that’s because it offers the same type of mind-numbing police procedural that American audiences are accustomed to. (According to Wired, the code in CSI: Cyber is complete gibberish.)
Viewers of CSI: Cyber presumably aren’t watching it for its verisimilitude. Mr. Robot viewers aren’t necessarily watching it for its technical acumen either, but many still find themselves impressed by it.
(Note: This clip uses music from Cinemax’s The Knick, another new show that checks off a lot of the same boxes Mr. Robot does.)
Auteurs can be successful on TV, but they need help
HBO’s True Detective provides an excellent case study on the benefits and dangers of “auteur theory.” The first season was marvelous—partially because of its two fantastic lead actors, sure, but also because it was the work of a TV newcomer with a distinctive, confident vision.
The second season, however, was broadly panned by critics. It became clear that this time the show’s auteur, Nic Pizzolatto, could have benefited from other voices and ideas, perhaps in the form of a full writer’s room.
Mr. Robot has that. The show is largely the vision of Sam Esmail, a 37-year-old NYU Tisch graduate who originally imagined it as a feature film. The show is very obviously Esmail’s baby, but he’s not a possessive parent. He’s written only a handful of the show’s 10 episodes (whereas Pizzolatto has either written, or co-written, every episode of True Detective).
USA Network also deserves a lot of credit for letting Esmail be Esmail and Mr. Robot be Mr. Robot. The show needed room to develop this weird world, and USA gave it that. The network ordered a second season before the first episode even aired.
This is a show that takes risks. Rules are broken. Typical TV conventions are ignored. And that’s the thread that connects most critically acclaimed shows of recent years: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Lost, The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing. And similarly, the most acclaimed new shows to debut recently—Transparent, Better Call Saul, The Knick, The Leftovers, Fargo, UnREAL. All of them, to some degree, made risky, difficult decisions—whether it was in style, subject matter, or casting choices.
In that way, the process of creating Mr. Robot parallels Elliot’s arc within the show. Changing the world is methodical and exhausting, he discovers. And we don’t all have the stomach for it.