Great first seasons aren’t exactly common, but the last several weeks of TV have served as a reminder that great second seasons are even rarer. First, UnReal, one of 2015’s most promising new shows, jumped the rails with series of ill-conceived episodes, and now Mr. Robot is threatening to follow it into the ditch. Wednesday night’s episode, “Kernel Panic,” wasn’t a total disaster, but there were passages so cringe-inducingly bad I felt the urge to hide, as if I’d been confronted with an embarrassing grade-school photograph. (The line “Control is about as real as a one-legged unicorn taking a leak at the end of a double rainbow” made me want to run out of the room.) The USA network has thrown its weight behind the show, allowing creator Sam Esmail to direct every one of the season’s episodes, but he’s used that creative freedom to double down on Mr. Robot’s worst tendencies.
Mr. Robot’s first season ended, audaciously, with the suggestion that fsociety, the group of anarchist hackers led by Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), had succeeded in erasing the world’s debt records, effectively putting anyone with a bank account instantly in the black. Part of what was exciting about the show’s second season was how the show would address what a post-debt world looks like, especially since there’s no conceivable to way to wipe out the computerized records of what people owe without wiping out their virtual savings as well. In a medium where common practice is to restore the status quo at the end of every episode, it seemed like a radical, even thrilling idea.
Unfortunately, the primary way Mr. Robot’s second season has dealt with the consequences of fsociety’s hack is by not dealing with them at all. One of Elliot’s hackers calls it “the crime of the century,” but apart from the fact that corporate fat cats now have to pay for their fancy dinners up front, precious little seems to have changed. People still hold jobs, Fox News and Bloomberg TV are still on the air, pickup basketball games continue uninterrupted. After tossing around a lot of second-semester wisdom about the evils of corporate control, it seemed like Mr. Robot was finally making its way into less familiar territory, but instead, Esmail’s taken a giant step backward. The season’s first episode featured an entry-level lecture on the workings of the stock market presented as a devious conspiracy theory, and in “Kernel Panic,” Elliot unleashes a long, sub–Richard Dawkins tirade about the evils of organized religion, concluding, “Fuck God.”
Or rather, “F–k God.” “Kernel Panic” included what might have been a record number of bleeped obscenities for a scripted drama; I lost count after half a dozen. Given that Email knew his F-words would be obscured for broadcast, stacking up so many in a single hour of TV seems willfully perverse. (They’re included, unbleeped, in the digital version available from iTunes.) It’s a distraction every time the sound cuts out, and a needless one. Esmail seems like like a teenager dropping F-bombs in front of his parents just to see how they’ll react, getting giddy pleasure from his insignificant rebellion.
On their own, the episode’s string of bleeped profanities would be just a mild annoyance, but they’re an extension of how hard Mr. Robot is trying to seem “edgy” while actually backing off the show’s more radical aspects. Instead of considering how society could actually survive without credit, or adapt to its loss, we get Grace Gummer’s FBI agent masturbating to X-rated (but blacked-out) online chats and Elliot scooping half-digested Adderall out of his own vomit. Even the length of the second season’s episodes—83 minutes for the two-part premiere, 63 for “Kernel Panic”—feels like an attempt to assert the show’s importance without backing it up with actual heft.
A show like Mr. Robot or UnReal can get by for a season on an intriguing concept and long-term promise; you overlook its flaws because it’s new and exciting and hope they’ll work out some of the kinks next time around. But when those flaws persist, or even deepen, you have to be concerned that they’re endemic, that Esmail really thinks Elliot’s adolescent anti-establishment rhetoric is profound, and that there’s something subversive about smuggling it onto a TV network owned by one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. Mr. Robot’s first season held such potential, but now it seems more and more like the show was writing checks it can’t cash.