Friday, March 11, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Mr. Robot (2015); Agent Carter, season 2 (2016)

Mr. Robot (2015)

Unnerving little series from USA Network, which uses a cagey and unreliable protagonist to take on the biggest of the world's big fish.

Mr. Robot follows Elliot (Rami Malik), a brilliant but painfully awkward computer hacker who finds himself embroiled in a plot to take down a massive corporate conglomerate named Evil Corp. Elliot's day job is for a cyber security firm, but he spends much of his free time "hacking" other people, including friends, looking into their lives through their digital footprints. From the information he finds, Elliot often enacts his own sort of vigilante justice on those who harm others. When Elliot comes across a hacking crew known as "fsociety", the stakes grow to global proportions, as their target, Evil Corp, is the largest and most ubiquitous corporation the world has ever seen. Making things more complex is that Elliot suffers from anxiety disorder, and possibly delusions, which are pushing him in uncertain directions.

The show is brilliantly realized. Over the course of its ten episodes, there is a clear focus, even though there are one or two episodes which slow down the main plot just a bit. Like most great shows, Mr. Robot doesn't rely solely on its grand "good versus evil" plot for its depth, though the battle against Evil Corp is quiet intelligent and extremely timely. Just as interesting is Elliot, who is a tortured and pained genius. Watching Elliot's fight against his own fractured perceptions and social ineptitude is just as compelling as his war against Evil Corp. And lest you think that the entire show is a dark, brooding slog, there is a nice amount of humor, albeit of a rather dark variety much of the time. The very name of the enemy highlights the humorous "meta" tone in much of the show.

There are some elements which are not exactly original. However, the show is abundantly aware of when it is "borrowing" from other sources, and it even offers little tips of the cap to these inspirations. I suppose this isn't exactly an excuse for a lack of originality, but it does go some way towards excusing a few taints of plagiarism.

This initial season ended with several large questions left to be answered, but it remained contained enough to feel like a complete opening chapter to a larger work. I'll certainly be ready for season 2, which comes out in summer of 2016.

Agent Carter, season 2 (2016)

Really disappointing, which truly hurts to admit.

This is not to say that I thought season 2 was outright terrible. However, given how much I like the Peggy Carter character and how strong I found season one, this season left much to be desired. In fact, I'm willing to state that season 2 of Agent Carter is the weakest chapter to date in the eight-plus years of the MCU.

The main story is actually decent, by superhero show standards. It revolves around a substance known as "Zero Matter", which was discovered during atomic bomb tests during World War II. This amorphous, shifting liquid has mysterious properties, most alarming of which is that it seems to attract and absorb anything nearby. Several different parties have intense interest, some with public safety and others with power in mind. One one side are Agent Peggy Carter and several members of the Strategic Science Reserve branch in Los Angeles. On the other is a group of cigar-smoking, rich, white, old guys, The Council of Nine. The wildcard in this is Whitney Frost, an aging Hollywood star actress who is secretly a genius physicist with her own designs on Zero Matter. The properties of Zero Matter and the maneuvering of the different groups to get at it keeps the plot moving well enough, but I had some serious issues with this season:

Firstly, I found the tone wandering into silliness and slapstick far too frequently. While no character was immune to this, the most obvious victim was Edwin Jarvis. While Jarvis was a source of some great wry comedy in the first season, he is often portrayed as clownishly naive in the sophomore season. Jarvis aside, there were far too many moments when, in the midst of a tense and high-stakes struggle, characters would be ripping off flippant one-liners. The first season had some great lines, but they knew their place within the overall tone of each scene. This season contained a baffling number of incidents when this was not the case. Making it worse is that many of the lines themselves were duds, being overly broad or obvious.

Secondly, the actions committed by supposedly intelligent and capable characters could often only be termed as "idiotic". Why are Carter and Souza having a cute little verbal tete-a-tete in Frost's room when time is of the absolute essence? Why does nobody think to hold onto Souza's lifeline BEFORE he starts getting sucked into the Zero Matter hole? These were just from the final episode, but they were emblematic of many similarly weak plot points.

Doctor Jason Wilkes, one of several characters, both new and
old, who had plenty of potential go unfulfilled in this season.
Third, the acting and writing were often campy. The embodiment is most obviously in Joseph Manfredi, whose performance seemed like a bad impression of Robert DeNiro from Analyze This. If he had just had a few cameo appearances, this would have been tolerable, but he became a rather major presence in the final three or four episodes. Along with Manfredi was also Doctor Jason Wilkes, who had potential as a character but who was reduced to a cliched nerdy, bumbling scientist much of the time. At first, I had hoped that Wilkes, an African-American character, would have provided some smart social commentary on racial intolerance of the time, much as gender bias was part of the first season. However, this territory was explored very little. And nearly every character, including Peggy and Frost, was forced to spit out at least one or two groan-worthy bad gags. It almost seemed as if the show's energy and efforts were spent more on stylish costumes that accentuated Hayley Atwell's cleavage than on meaningful dialogue or character development.

Another element I had serious problems with was the resolution to everything. I found everything far too pat, and rather anti-climactic. All of that build up, just to have a brief showdown between Frost and the Zero Matter hole? Then the hole just sucks the matter out of Frost and closes? That's it? Really? In the end, after ten entire episodes, the only real cost to the major players is that Frost is in a mental institution and Jarvis's wife can't have children. Sad, to be sure, but not exactly the high stakes of the first season, when we saw a truly admirable and likable character like Chief Dooley die heroically, the city of New York saved from the Leviathan gas, and Peggy come to terms with her love of the believed-dead Steve Rogers.

The season was not completely without a few redeeming qualities. I thought that Dottie Underwood was brought back and utilized well, for the most part. I also enjoy how Jack Thompson continued to dwell in certain gray areas. Unfortunately, their stories comprised too little, compared to what I found weaker elements of the show.

It pains me to write it, but I would rather not see another Agent Carter season, if this is the best they can offer in the future. In looking at other sites and ratings, I appear to be in a bit of a minority with my opinions, so I fear that, should a third season be made, it is unlikely to be any better than this one.