Used To Be You Could Trust In the Story: Mr. Robot & Genre

Yes, '90s sitcom is a genre.

Below I assume at least a passing familiarity with the series Mr. Robot, and engage in spoilers for ep 2.6 of the same. (Also contains spoilers for Supernatural ep 5.8)

Since Mr. Robot started airing on USA Network (to general critical acclaim), I’ve been asking myself as I watched, is this a “genre show” or not? It takes place in a reality that has at least plausibly recently diverged from our own, no one has superpowers, there are no supernatural elements running amok, and really the only “super-” element present is the skill of the hackers portrayed.

But there are rules. Or at least a careful, teasing, flouting of them. Elliot (Rami Malek), our narrator and protagonist, is soon revealed to be a highly unreliable narrator. Sometimes he withholds relevant narrative information because he doesn’t trust you–a very literal you, addessed as so–sufficiently. Other times, he’s presenting things as he understands them, but through the filter of narcotics on his perceptions, or of hallucinations from his mental illness.

I’m of the camp that believes Elliot’s struggles with discerning reality from hallucination are overwhelmingly presented with compassion and sympathy–he’s not a punchline we’re invited to laugh at, and when others onscreen do so, their cruelty in the face of his distress makes them look very small indeed. Because of this compassionate presentation, and Malek’s breakout and deeply humanizing performance, Elliot escapes being remanded to narrative novelty act, retaining his agency and sympathy, while simultaneously confounding viewer efforts to understand entirely what is happening in the conspiracy-tangled narrative. The series narrative itself is a mess of spinning plates, with greater and greater difficulty keeping them all aloft with every episode, and it remains to be seen if it will all come crashing down in Season 3 or triumph yet. But in the meantime, the audience has entered a tacit contract with the series: If we keep watching and paying attention, the pieces will eventually fit together to yield a clear story, and Elliot will tell and show us what he is capable of perceiving and recalling (for the most part).

Such contracts, especially at that level of complexity, are a hallmark of the genre text, as are “sandbox” portrayals of an insular world the audience is unlikely to have any personal familiarity with–in this case, hackers. But I’ve been fence-sitting on Mr. Robot‘s genre status for two seasons now, leaning towards “unclassifiable” rather than a clean genre designation. Many would place it in the category of “prestige cable drama,” but while many critics use the term liberally, it seems best defined as “cable dramas that make critics feel clever,” and I’m unconvinced that has any of the requisite moving parts that a genre designation make. What I am ready to observe, is that the show’s unclassifiable nature allows it to render judgement on a genre it doesn’t belong to, when it assumes that genre’s skin for the first third of Ep 2.6.

genre disorientation

The end of ep 2.5 left Elliot on the receiving end of a brutal and potentially-fatal-looking beating at the hands of several thugs, and in ep 2.6, after the usual Previously on… sequence, we see an outdated-looking logo and lead-in for USA Network, and then the Aldersons are thrown into a 90’s sitcom, complete with peppy color-palette, laugh track, and hokey theme song (“Used to be you could trust in the story…”). And Elliot looks absolutely terrified to be there. He’s often disoriented by his surroundings and struggling to discern auditory and visual hallucinations from reality, but on top of his usual stressors, he’s in a car badly matted against stock highway footage, and faced with a literal laugh track–that no one else seems to hear–assaulting his senses. For an individual constantly dealing with holes in his recall and evaluating his reality, self-awareness in this genre appears to essentially be hell. At first the tonal mismatch of placing these characters in the “wrong” genre seems amusing–to us, the viewers, and certainly to the “studio audience” providing the constant laughter–but seeing the baggage they carry with them (literally and figuratively–there’s a kidnapping victim in the trunk of the car) treated in sitcom mode, rapidly becomes something else.

Genreswapping has become a popular sport for many series, some breaking out in musical episodes (usually fun), “noir” (usually a disaster), or police procedurals, etc.

SPN Ep 5.8, "Changing Channels."

One of Supernatural‘s best episodes places the action in multiple genres within a single episode, and its sitcom sequence is used to play up existing dynamics within the series, namely the relationship between the brothers. Genre makes things bigger, more exaggerated, and in doing so, often transforms them. In this case, the show acknowledges just how much family comedy (as well as the more obvious family drama) is at the heart of the series’ appeal, and how incongruous that seemingly is within the series’ native genre category of Horror.

Mr. Robot’s foray into the 90’s sitcom mode, rather than introducing sitcom to a Horror context, reveals the horror already inherent in the sitcom genre. People say and do horrifying things, in at-most-slightly-exaggerated character from their usual contexts, and the addition of the laugh track and knowing smirks that break the fourth wall creates a hellish atmosphere that on little reflection, exposes the horror inherent to those gestures and canned responses in all such genre texts.

It's funny because he's dead!

Elliot’s family is a nightmare in of itself, but it’s not too much beyond the dystopia already presented by this genre, where everything is performed for an invisible audience, accompanied by constant, mocking laughter at inappropriate moments. Elliot always feels that he’s being watched in his “normal” experience–how far a cry is that from being self-aware in a sitcom? By the time ALF shows up and commits graphic vehicular manslaughter, to the whoops of the studio audience, you find yourself not so much reflecting on the contrast of Elliot’s reality with that of sitcoms, but rather the congruencies, and wondering why all 90’s sitcom characters didn’t look as existentially horrified as he does now.

What did you think of this episode? Horror and comedy have always had close affinities, and there’s a rich body of writing on the topic to explore. Let us know in the comments below if you’d like to see more!

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