Friday, September 4, 2015

Spies, Hackers, & Reality Stars: Summer TV Roundup

Shiri Appleby and Josh Kelly on Lifetime's UnREAL.

The growth of television over the last decade-and-a-half has been remarkable. A medium once derided for its vacuity has expanded to dominate much of high culture as well as low, with serious publications featuring detailed exegeses on the nuances of dramas such as Breaking Bad and comedies such as Parks and Recreation. At the same time, TV’s rise has resulted in an explosion of new programming, especially scripted content, leading major critics such as Linda Holmes and Alan Sepinwall to wonder whether, in the latter’s words, there is “too much good scripted television.”

One corollary of scripted TV’s rise has been its expansion to new platforms at the same time that the broadcast networks, once the only game in town, have become increasingly boring and formulaic. “Prestige” television is generally understood to have migrated to outlets such as premium cable, online venues such as Netflix and Amazon, and some basic cable channels such as FX and AMC. However, the proliferation of scripted TV hasn’t stopped there. One of the most notable developments of this past summer has been the appearance of a number of very good shows on unlikely or little-known basic cable channels. The appearance of these shows suggests that even networks that seemed to have found comfortable, if unambitious, niches for themselves are looking to add some of the luster conferred by a quality original series to their reputations. None of these shows represents a radical reinvention of the form, but all of them offer a fresh approach to the now-familiar tropes of television drama.

One of these shows, UnREAL, invariably attracts comment merely by virtue of being on Lifetime, a channel previously associated with dire TV movies and unchallenging fluff geared towards a female audience (as opposed to the male-skewing fluff of a channel like Spike TV). UnREAL is certainly a departure from that formula, but it also represents a reconfiguration of a different formula: the male anti-hero who’s good at what he does but morally compromised by it. In this case, the anti-hero is a woman, Rachel Goldberg, who’s played by Shiri Appleby.

Constance Zimmer on UnREAL.
Rachel is a producer for Everlasting, a reality-television show in which a handsome, wealthy bachelor lives in a mansion with a bevy of gorgeous women, eventually choosing one of them to marry. It’s a paper-thin fictionalization of real-life reality series The Bachelor, and one apparently based on close observation by UnREAL co-creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, who essentially fulfilled Rachel’s function on that show. The portrait that Shapiro and fellow writer Marti Noxon paint of Rachel’s world is hardly a flattering one: her job boils down to manipulating the female contestants, many of whom are dealing with unresolved issues from their lives off-set, into behaving badly. Her goal is to make “good television” (whatever that means), no matter the cost.

The demands of the job also leave Rachel almost completely deprived of any personal life, sleeping in a truck on-set and neglecting basic hygiene. However, she does interact with the other crew members of Everlasting, especially her amoral mentor, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer), who runs the show on a day-to-day basis. The relationship isn’t as straightforward as you might think: we soon learn that Rachel recently suffered a severe mental breakdown, and that Quinn has been protecting her from the direst consequences of that episode because she sees her as indispensable to the show. However, that also means that she effectively holds Rachel in a sort of indentured servitude, with the threat of legal and financial ruin hanging over her head should she ever try to break away.

Quinn, meanwhile, is sleeping with Chet Wilson (Craig Bierko), the drug-addled lout who ostensibly created Everlasting. At the same time, Rachel tries to negotiate her relationship with hunky camera operator Jeremy Carver (Josh Kelly), with whom she once had a fling but who is now engaged to another crew member. Finally, there’s the on-camera talent (sic), most notably British playboy Adam Cromwell (Freddie Stroma), who in the parlance of the Everlasting series is the “suitor” who’s supposed to pick one of the contestants as his bride-to-be. Those contestants include Anna (Johanna Brady), swimsuit model Grace (Nathalie Kelley), troubled single mother Mary (Ashley Scott), and an awkward Southern Christian named Faith (Breeda Wool), among others.

As that plot summary indicates, UnREAL is effectively a soap opera, and as with any example of the genre, that necessitates plenty of plot twists and shocking reveals. However, Noxon and Shapiro make the wise (and, from the standpoint of the show’s budget, fiscally prudent) decision to contain almost all of the show’s action to the set of Everlasting, which keeps the various storylines reasonably contained. It also keeps the focus squarely on Rachel most of the time and helps to set the show’s tone: the glitzy surroundings appear glamorous at first sight, but they quickly become claustrophobic.

Shiri Appleby and Freddie Stroma on UnREAL.
I’m a sucker for any show that purports to show how a unique workplace (i.e. the White House in The West Wing, or 1960s ad agencies in Mad Men) functions, and UnREALs tinge of authenticity made it inherently interesting for me. The show sometimes tries to push its cultural relevance a little too hard: there’s an early scene where Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), an African-American producer on Everlasting, takes the African-American contestants on the show aside and tells them that, while they have no chance of ultimately winning, they’ll have to swallow their pride and play up to crude racial stereotypes if they want to have a chance to stay on the show for as long as possible. There are a few other moments like this, where Noxon, Shapiro, and the rest of UnREAL’s writers’ room seems to worry that they haven’t highlighted the show’s themes and message with sufficient boldness.

The show’s apparent uncertainty over how blatant it needs to be with its message leads to a self-serious tone in the initial episodes that almost led me to stop watching. UnREAL seems to be in danger of settling into a depressing, monotonous pattern in which Rachel, faced with a problem, does something morally reprehensible in order to fix it. Once it gets out of this rut, which it does in large part through an injection of wicked black humor, it becomes a lot more enjoyable.

Luckily, UnREAL has a central character who’s interesting enough to carry the show through some early bumps. Rather than simply emote and react, Appleby is given something to do in every scene, an active goal for Rachel to achieve. The means to that goal almost always involve manipulating someone else, and one of the best parts of Appleby’s performance is the way that you can see her watching whoever’s opposite her, obviously calculating what it will take to get them to go along with whatever she wants them to do.

The rest of the cast is solid, if mostly unexceptional. I thought Johanna Brady, who plays one of the strongest contestants, was especially good: her character, Anna, vacillates between clear-eyed cynicism and a genuine, na├»ve belief that the romance peddled on Everlasting may actually be for real. Bierko feels over the top as the bug-eyed, coke-addled Chet, but he does provide much of the dark humor that buoys the show. Zimmer works well as Quinn, but there’s nothing terribly exciting about her performance or the character; she feels like one of the gruff, hyper-competent female authority figures you might see on a Shonda Rhimes drama, albeit with a darker tinge.

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson on USA Network’s Mr. Robot.

If UnREAL is notable for the way that it reverses some familiar TV tropes, USA Network’s Mr. Robot gleefully subverts them altogether. The show has a twisty, byzantine plot, but I spent most of it questioning whether any of the events being depicted were actually occurring. It features frequent voiceover narration, but it justifies this choice by positioning us, its audience, as a fictional construct in the character’s head. The plot features what would normally be treated as a shocking reveal, to be saved for the final minutes of the season; instead, the show assumes that we’ve already guessed the twist, revealing it in the penultimate episode as the main character asks us: “You knew all along, didn’t you?”

Some of the show’s unconventional approach may be a function of the fact that its creator, Sam Esmail, has done very little previous work in TV. It’s also a surprisingly off-brand choice for USA, which has garnered a reputation for what it calls its “blue skies” approach, which meant offering light, conventional shows featuring pretty people in sunny locales. The network’s apparently looking to shed this image, and Mr. Robot is certainly a forceful statement of its intentions.

The show follows Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), an anti-social computer hacker. He works for an internet security firm, Allsafe, with his friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) and his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), but most of his non-work activities involve invading other people’s personal lives via their electronic identities. Other than Angela, Elliot’s circle of personal acquaintances is very small, consisting mostly of his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben), who’s treating him for some serious mental issues, and drug dealer Shayla (Frankie Shaw), who supplies him with both morphine and with the Suboxone he needs to keep him from getting addicted to it.

Ironically, Allsafe’s main client is E Corp, the corporate conglomerate responsible for the industrial accident that killed both Elliot’s father and Angela’s mother (it’s the main reason that the unlikely duo became friends). Elliot informs us that he’s “hacked” his own mental processes so that he always hears the company’s name as “Evil Corp” – it’s funny, at first, to hear the other characters casually referring to the company by that name, but then the device mostly fades into the background, serving mainly as a reminder that we’re perceiving the world through Elliot’s point of view, even when he’s not around. When Elliot and Gideon respond to a massive online attack on Evil Corp, Elliot stumbles across something that leads him into the company of a group of ambitious hackers who call themselves “fsociety.” Their leader, the titular Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), soon reveals that he has big plans to significantly reshape the global economy and society. That appears to set Elliot on a collision course with Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), a tech-savvy young executive at Evil Corp who aspires to the post of Chief Technology Officer.

Rami Malek and Carly Chaikin in Mr. Robot.
Mr. Robot centers on Rami Malek as Elliot, and he’s absolutely fantastic. His remarkable performance conveys a sense of Elliot as a person who’s quiet, contained, and largely apathetic. However, that restrained exterior hides a deep loneliness, which makes it all the more jarring when Malek lets us see the sorrow and rage that lie just beneath the surface. Like Rachel in UnREAL, Elliot’s also a master at manipulating people, and it’s fascinating to watch as Malek shows us how Elliot takes the measure of those around him and subtly uses what he’s learned from hacking them to his advantage.

The cast around Malek is mostly pretty good, but they’re hampered by the thinness of their characters. That’s partly by Esmail’s design, but I still think he could have done more to flesh out characters like the members of fsociety, who seem interesting but barely get fleshed out in the course of the first season, with the exception of the sardonic Darlene (Carly Chaikin). Doubleday’s on the bland side as Angela, and while that might be largely a function of her character’s straight-arrow nature, I’d note that Gill is quite good as Gideon, who’s also a fundamentally good person with no real dark side. The most notable misfire comes with Tyrell, a Swede whose relationship with his pregnant wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen) is strongly reminiscent of the Macbeths. I liked Wallstrom’s weird intensity in the role, but I watched in dismay as the show went from setting up Tyrell to as an intriguing, complicated villain to indulging in the sort of cheap shocks that lesser shows substitute in place of legitimate character development (he and Joanna indulge in kinky sex amid tasteful modern furnishings  which, to be fair, is probably what most of us assume most Scandinavians spend their time doing anyway). He ultimately gets sidetracked into a subplot, involving his machinations to seize the CTO position, whose relevance to the main plot is not immediately apparent. Unfortunately, that plotline also ensnares the enjoyable character actor Michael Cristofer and Broadway great Brian Stokes Mitchell.

Regardless of whether or not the secondary characters are as compelling as Elliot, Esmail has ensured that they’re filmed with a distinctive visual style that’s effectively expressionist in nature, since it often invites us to see the world through the protagonist’s eyes. There are a number of moments where a seemingly uninterrupted shot of Elliot is interrupted by brief skips, suggesting the fractured nature of his psyche. There are also a couple of moments that are (for lack of a better phrase) completely bonkers, including an instance where, in the depths of his paranoia, Elliot attacks the camera and knocks it to the ground, almost literally shattering the fourth wall (or lens, if you will). Another example comes when Elliot has an extended drug-related freak out, which touches off a lengthy surrealist sequence in which his beta fish, who speaks in a booming voice and is apparently African-American, features prominently. Finally, there’s Esmail’s distinctive use of the opening titles, which usually appear in a striking fashion.

In addition to the show’s visual qualities, it’s worth mentioning its soundtrack. Mr. Robot has a pulsing electronic score ( lists Julian Scherle as the composer for all 10 episodes, with Charlie Haggard as music supervisor) that nicely complements its unsettled, paranoid tone. It’s also deployed well throughout the season: there’s one scene around the middle of the season where the score blends seamlessly with ambient sound effects to deepen our sense of dread in response to an especially disturbing plot twist. The non-original music has also been chosen with evident care, such as a lovely piano rendition of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?”

Jonas Nay as Martin Rauch, on Sundance TV's Deutschland 83.

If UnREAL and Mr. Robot represent major departures for their respective networks, Deutschland 83 is more on-brand for its channel, Sundance TV. The German-American co-production is apparently the first German-language TV show to air in the United States, adding to the list of foreign shows that Sundance has featured (including the delightfully eerie French series The Returned). It’s a more straightforward show than either UnREAL or Mr. Robot, but it’s yet another example of the ways in which quality dramas have proliferated in unexpected or out-of-the-way channels.

The show, set on both sides of the internal German border in 1983, follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a young East German border guard who’s forced by the Stasi to go undercover as a West German soldier and to spy on NATO. It’s an especially cruel predicament for Martin, because one of the Stasi agents who does this is his own aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader). Even if he felt like standing up to her and her superior, Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth), he couldn’t, because his mother Ingrid’s (Carina Wiese) kidney transplant is conditional on his cooperation. He’s forced to leave his mother and his girlfriend Annett (Sonja Gerhardt) for the West, where his handler Tobias (Alexander Beyer) teaches him how to integrate into life beyond the Iron Curtain. Assuming the new identity of Moritz Stamm (don’t ask what happens to the real Moritz), Martin must earn the trust of General Wolfgang Edel (Ulrich Noethen) while simultaneously navigating the general’s tricky relationships with his rebellious son Alex (Ludwig Trepte) and daughter Yvonne (Lisa Tomaschewsky).

The basic premise of the show makes it impossible not to compare it with The Americans, FX’s dark, brilliant drama about Soviet spies in the United States during the same decade. However, it’s unfair to make that comparison, because Deutschland creators Anna and Joerg Winger are aiming for something very different with their show. Deutschland 83 is a thriller, first and foremost, with plenty of hairsbreadth escapes and nail-bitingly tense moments. Martin is always on the verge of being discovered, and complications build rapidly.

Jonas Nay and Maria Schrader on Deutschland 83.
Nay is appealing but something of a tabula rasa as Martin (which, admittedly, is sort of the point). His character doesn’t have the sort of moral agency that protagonists like Rachel Goldberg in UnREAL or Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot have; he’s usually acting somewhat passively, either carrying out orders or scrambling to react to unexpected developments. It makes the character more immediately sympathetic than, say, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, but it also avoids introducing potentially interesting complications.

The show is at its strongest when it is focused on Martin’s misadventures in the West. Between watching him wriggle out of one tense situation after another and negotiating his complicated relationship with General Edel (Noethen and Nay have some good scenes together), that part of the narrative zips along. The material set in East Germany is more uneven: Wiese is good as Ingrid, but the domestic drama that ensues when Annett moves in with her doesn’t feel as urgent when juxtaposed with the life-or-death stakes of Martin’s storyline.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show is the way that it depicts the Cold War from an unconventional perspective. Rather than turning the conflict into a struggle between East and West, Communism and capitalism, Deutschland 83 is, as its title implies, concerned with how the geopolitical situation divided Germany and the allegiances of the German people. Martin soon realizes that General Edel – to say nothing of his son Alex – has deep reservations about the deployment of American missiles to West Germany, since their presence would guarantee his homeland’s obliteration in the event of open war. Meanwhile, Martin’s ultimate superior, Schweppenstette, finds himself distorting intelligence to please his Soviet overlords, who only want to hear assessments of NATO that emphasize its belligerence. In both cases, these individuals find themselves trapped between two larger, implacable forces: they are all, in a sense, stuck in Martin’s position.

Both UnREAL and Mr. Robot have already received renewals from their respective networks. Deutschland 83 may return – the Wingers apparently plan to tell a longer story over three seasons, each set three years apart – but that’s contingent on how well it does when airs on German TV. At any rate, there are now three more good shows to add onto the ever-growing list of TV worth watching.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscenti page. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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