As a professional TV watcher, the question I hear most often is, "What's good on TV right now?" Here are three promising new shows that will infuse your TV-watching schedule with summer fun.
Mr. Robot is a brooding, paranoid cyberpunk thriller. Seriously.
The greatest compliment I can pay to Mr. Robot, which premieres Wednesday, June 24, on USA, is that it feels like how I sometimes imagine my life. The characters wander a gray cityscape, surrounded by a massive electronic web they cannot see but can somehow perceive, rattling away in the distance. They're caught in it, and sometimes they know they're caught in it, but there's little they can do. This is the way we live now. This is the way we've chosen to live now.
At its heart, Mr. Robot is cyberpunk, the sci-fi subgenre set in a near-future world where the reality that exists within computer networks can feel more real than actual reality, with its dull, grimy films. What Mr. Robot understands is that it doesn't take much to transpose this genre directly into our reality. We all live in a cyberpunk tale nowadays, at least to some degree. The characters don't have to disappear into some parallel universe within the internet, because the parallel universe exists all around us, all of the time, unseen. A paranoid certainty that you are being watched suffuses every frame, every angle.
It all stems from Elliot (Rami Malek), a young, genius hacker who uses his abilities to right the tiny wrongs he sees around him. In the series' opening scene, he confronts a child-pornography peddler, and the momentary bout of justice seems to do him good. But he feels paralyzed in the face of a gigantic, global system designed to control everybody like puppets. In his day job, he works on protecting the network of a corporation dubbed "Evil Corp" from intrusion, and if you can imagine where a story about a would-be online vigilante working for a company he calls "Evil Corp" is headed, you win.
The titular role in Mr. Robot is played by Christian Slater, as an off-the-grid hacker who wants to bring an end to the American debt crisis (seriously). Slater tries to underplay the character, to occasionally solid effect, but when he's forced to rant about the evils of capitalism, he doesn't quite have it in him. In his own way, the character of Mr. Robot embodies the show Slater is on, always staying a mere millistep ahead of being outright terrible. Fortunately, "a mere millistep ahead of being outright terrible" is where much of the best TV is made.
Mr. Robot's success is a function of two elements: Malek and creator Sam Esmail (who wrote the two episodes I've seen and directed the second). Malek takes a character who could seem like old news (would you believe he's deeply damaged?) and brings him to seething, paranoid life. Even the constant narration he must deliver generally works, because Malek reads it in the voice of a man who's barely staying on the right side of sanity.
Esmail, meanwhile, drenches Mr. Robot in a thick film of cynicism, and he (along with pilot director Niels Arden Oplev) frames the series so that characters are often reduced to tiny figures at the far edges, surrounded by empty space. They are all alone and powerless, except they live in a world where they are always connected and could possess infinite power with the right keystrokes. Of course, in the irony the show embraces, to realize this is to understand how powerless you truly are. (In the pilot's finest shot, Mr. Robot explains his plan to Elliot as looming Ferris wheel carts roar in the background behind them, making the everyday feel quite ominous.)
It's not immediately clear how Mr. Robot is going to be a television show, and the second episode is already a slight step down from the pilot. It's also not clear how the show's supporting cast fits into what feels like a character study of Elliot in an information age apocalypse. But when the show focuses on that best version of itself, it feels brilliant and paranoid and, above all, prescient.
UnREAL is the best show you're not watching (right now)
Like Mr. Robot, UnREAL airs on a network that viewers aren't accustomed to checking for amazing TV. But where Mr. Robot is on the anodyne USA, UnREAL is on Lifetime, a network perhaps best known for its terrible TV movies and often pandering programming. Also, UnREAL's title contains some idiotic capitalization, and that's rarely a good sign.
But hidden beneath this show's satirically soapy veneer is one of TV's best, most fearless examinations of mental illness. Reality TV producer Rachel (Shiri Appleby) has returned to her job on the Bachelor-esque dating show Everlasting after a nervous breakdown forced her to exit the series in its prior season. Her foil is Quinn (the great Constance Zimmer), who brings Rachel back to work even though she knows how risky it is to toss Rachel into the middle of a situation that makes her feel morally queasy.
UnREAL is a great many things, including a dark satire of reality TV, a satisfyingly comedic soap opera, and the ultra-rare female antihero drama. But above all else, it's a portrait of how often emotionally fragile people with deep psychological scars are repackaged — repeatedly — for what is ultimately empty entertainment. Though Zimmer is fantastic, it's Appleby who shows new sides here, as she digs deep into a woman who feels real kinship with everybody in front of the camera but also knows that her greatest gift is knowing exactly how to exploit them. So it's not just a riff on reality TV; it's a great satire of therapy itself.
Nobody is watching this show (literally; the third episode's viewership was barely over 500,000). But Lifetime has made it easy to catch up via its own website, and it's clear the network desperately wants to be seen as a home of quality drama. UnREAL makes a very good case for that.
UnREAL airs Mondays on Lifetime at 10 pm Eastern. You can find previous episodes on Lifetime's website.
Catastrophe is a hilarious comedy you can watch in one night
If you're an Amazon Prime subscriber, the Atlantic-spanning comedy Catastrophe is an easy choice, and one that you can polish off in a single evening. Co-created by American comedian Rob Delaney (of Twitter jokes fame) and the great Irish writer/actress Sharon Horgan, the series follows an American man and an Irish woman (played by, naturally enough, Delaney and Horgan) who meet while he's traveling in London. They hit it off, have a lot of sex, and part ways. Except she later finds out she's pregnant, and he's determined to be part of the kid's life.
Though that's a relatively high concept for such a small-scale comedy, Catastrophe itself is mostly a low-key hangout series, where Delaney and Horgan gather a few fellow funny people in every episode and deliver shockingly filthy, ridiculously hilarious dialogue. (In the first episode, the phrase "toboggan of turds" will almost certainly cause you to double over with laughter.) And then, when it needs to, the series can deliver devastating dramatic moments, seemingly without even breaking a sweat. There's nothing revolutionary here, but man, what is here is some of the funniest, most soulful TV of the summer.
And did I mention Catastrophe is just six 25-minute episodes? You won't want to finish it in one sitting, but you will.
Catastrophe is available to stream on Amazon Prime.