Watch: ‘Mr. Robot’ Dances around the Rules of Composition

Watch: ‘Mr. Robot’ Dances around the Rules of Composition

Rules hold sway over us, whether we realize it or not. Safety rules. Traffic rules. Rules of grammar. Laws. Codes of social behavior. Rules for arrangement of objects in your personal space. Rules for dress. Rules for business. The same holds true, oddly enough, when we watch films. We expect certain results. We expect certain placements, settings, orientations–and we even expect that the stories we enfold ourselves in will obey certain habitual patterns, will fall into place with a click. This character will fall in love with that character. Character X will win, and Character Y will lose. When it comes to visual rules, our expectations become a little harder to call out or examine because they are perhaps more engrained in us. The truth is, though, that it is the defiance of rules that makes a lasting work; whatever our expectations might be, the more eccentric works are the ones we remember. What better television show in which to examine the violation and transcendence of visual rules than the USA Network’s ‘Mr. Robot,’ as video editor Semih has done in this close-up, smart piece? Can you imagine a show about computer hackers that actually obeyed compositional rules?



is like most of my failed relationships. Much of what I desire leaves me too
soon, unfulfilled, unresolved, unloved. Tangential and peripheral lesser characters,
often caricatures, play too large a role. Expectations are high. Infidelity abound. But good television, like love, is ambitious, patient, and true to
itself. Often TV is none of these. Series are rushed to order based on a
premise and not a realization. Unappealing actors are forced into unsuitable
roles. Katherine Heigl is involved. Most often, though, TV is a victim of its
own parameters. It’s designed to live infinitely, or at least for enough episodes
to be syndicated. Narrative arcs are left open, because to close them is
suicide. In recent years, however, the mini- (or event) series has returned to
prominence. The successes of True
and American Horror Story
have revitalized the genre, giving birth to new opportunities for
storytelling and for actors. Even love has a complete cycle, and USA’s DIG (premiering March 5th) is
an example of how a mini-series can be successful by limiting its life.

DIG is particularly ambitious in its theological concerns and the international scope of its narrative. Action takes
place in Norway, New Mexico, and Jerusalem. The event series centers on an FBI
agent stationed in Jerusalem, Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs), who while
investigating the murder of a young American becomes embroiled in a 2000-year old
mystery. The series also stars Anne Heche as Connelly’s superior and lover, and
David Costabile as Tad Billingham, an enigmatic cult leader. The cast is
rounded out by a uniquely diverse cast including Ori Pfeffer, Regina Taylor, Alison
Sudol, and David Ambrose, which in and of itself separates DIG from what we are accustomed to on TV. It’s multiracial,
multi-generational, and multilingual. Yes, DIG
has subtitles. SUBTITLES! How will the American viewing public cope?

DIG doesn’t care. Nor should it. The
best TV is made with story in mind, not demographics or live plus seven numbers
or syndication. DIG comes to USA from
Homeland executive producer Gideon
Raff and Heroes creator Tim Kring. To
combine the credits of the two to make a series is a good recipe for TV
that goes beyond simple loglines and average ambition. Star Jason Isaacs was
also intrigued by the unlikely collaboration, noting “generally showrunners
like running the show” and not as a duet. But, Raff and Kring are “enormously
successful at telling stories on television. Both leapt at the chance to do
what they were born to do, which was tell a story with a beginning, middle, and
end.” And when taken through the elements of the story, it “scared the living
shit” out of him.

was excited to work within the mini-series medium, and it suits his tremendous
talent. He’s a leading man without wearing it on his sleeve. He found DIG “inherently satisfying, like telling
a joke with a punchline.” His last series, Awake,
was an event series trapped in the body of a planned serial. The premise, a cop
awakes in two realities, was ahead of its time (way back in ’12) and its
aesthetic was too progressive for network TV. If it had premiered today on
Netflix or Amazon or, indeed, USA, it would have had a better life and place in
the canon of great television.

according to Isaacs, maybe it lived long enough: “When you make 12 hours of
complicated satisfying television, as we did with Awake, and it works, that’s a triumphant achievement. In the UK,
drama series are only six episodes long. [Awake]
was two drama series. In America [as opposed to the UK] if it doesn’t run for a
decade people look down . . . with slight embarrassment in their voice. I thought
[with Awake] we did a remarkable
thing. Not sure that we would have sustained it or done many more. Twelve hours
is as much as I want to see about most things.”

that perfectly illustrates the inherent flaw of the multi-year serial. It
becomes a victim of its own immortality. Awake
may have died prematurely, but DIG is
set to live the perfect life. Heche calls the event series “its own art form,
as opposed to ‘let’s see where it all goes,’ which is what we’re used to on
television. [As opposed to viewers wondering] am I still going to be hooked
after six years?”

unlike Awake, what is immediately
striking about DIG is its aesthetic.
It has a grainy filter that very much suits its diversity of locals and gives
the series an unvarnished feel. It reminds the viewer of international series
more likely to come out of Canadian-Croatian co-productions, and I mean that in
the most positive way. Costabile mentions “the risk that the network was
taking… and their [USA’s] interest in going outside of what had been
successful for them. Much bigger, much more provocative, and much more
challenging to their audience.” And DIG most certainly takes, and conquers,
those risks.

as many a good TV show has discovered, simply being good and ambitious isn’t
enough. The TV graveyard is full and caskets are falling into the creek behind
the chapel. It wasn’t too long ago when a show wasn’t on one day, and the next
day it was. Now, there are multi-platform rollouts for even the smallest of
shows. From social media to YouTube to interactive websites to junkets by the
dozen. DIG had a multi-city touring installation
called DIG: Escape the Room, which allowed viewers to indulge in the spirit of the show long before they could revel in its
reality. Heche, who is excellent in what is essentially an unforgiving and
forgotten role, notes that the scope of what goes into promoting a show is
“incredible. You have to bombard the public. It’s not just, ‘I’m going to go do Letterman and I’ll do The Today Show and then I’ll be home.’”

series needs its antagonist, and DIG
is very fortunate to have Costabile play Billingham, who’s somehow part of the
theological mystery at the heart of the show. A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about how Costabile was in
need of a vehicle to match his incredible talent. In DIG, he is the villainous edge the series needs. But the best
villain can’t know they’re the bad guys, and only in that can the character
succeed. The Joker doesn’t know he’s evil, Michael Corleone is a good man, he
thinks. Jason is just out for a walk with a machete and a hockey mask. Says
Costabile, “when people do things that look at and consider bad or morally
bankrupt or morally questionable it’s dangerous for me, as a performer, to villainize
them. You’ll lose out on the possibility that they could be charming or
likeable in need of something else in a loving way. [Tad Billingham] has a misguided
sense of the world, but if I played him that way he’d appear at odds with

is a veteran of the most interesting television of the past
decade: DamagesBreaking BadThe WireHouse, The Office, Flight of the
Conchords, United States of Tara… His
IMDB page reads like a Labor Day weekend marathon binge of the best of the
past decade. Once again, in DIG, he
is the best thing onscreen, which is a huge accomplishment, as his co-stars are

DIG is not quite in the pantheon of
TV’s most noted endeavors, but nor does it want to be. It wants to be
something special, if just for a moment. It wants to indulge in itself, its
aesthetic, and its contextual universe, and it does so with a delicate touch,
patient exposition despite its finite nature, and superb storytelling. And it
can stand as a sea change in how interesting and dynamic television can be fed
to a North American audience. Simply put, DIG
is great television. If television is indeed like a relationship, DIG is a lover you can spend some time
with, guilt-free, unencumbered by commitment or the future. It is a moment in
your life, a moment in your television life. And it’s worth the time.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

Kicking Television: EXCLUSIVE Behind-the-Scenes Look at the USA Series DIG with Co-Star David Costabile

Kicking Television: EXCLUSIVE Behind-the-Scenes Look at the USA Series DIG with Co-Star David Costabile

In this
Indiewire exclusive, we go behind the scenes of the new USA series DIG with its co-star David Costabile (Suits, Breaking Bad, Damages). DIG,
from creators and executive producers Tim Kring (Heroes) and Gideon Raff (Homeland)
is the story of a murder in Jerusalem, but set against the backdrop of a much
larger mystery that takes viewers from Norway to New Mexico and into the
depths of the Holy Land. Costabile, recently praised
in this space
as an actor in need of a vehicle, plays Tad Billingham, a
deceptively charming author, TV personality, and leader of a cult who plays a
crucial role in the mystery.

series also stars Jason Isaacs (Awake),
Anne Heche (Save Me), Alison Sudol (A Fine Frenzy, Transparent), Richard E. Grant (Downton
), Regina Taylor (The Unit),
Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), Omar
Metwally (Non-Stop) and Ori Pfeffer (World War Z).




When we first see Elaine Barrish Hammond (Sigourney Weaver)—former first lady, former presidential candidate, and soon-to-be secretary of state—in Political Animals, she's onstage giving a concession speech, dressed in a purple disco jumpsuit. “Postpartisan purple,” says a friend who's writing a book on color. Purple serves two functions in this soapy miniseries: to signal Elaine’s shifting position in the red-blue Tron that is federal government and to provide an easy mnemonic for her alliance with conflicted journalist Susan Berg (Carla Gugino), who also sports purplish hues.

Berg is correct to wear the color of indecision, because she dwells in a twilight world of journalism in which talking about blogs and pageviews is vulgar and one wins a Pulitzer in one’s twenties for covering Southerner Bud Hammond’s Clintonesque infidelities. She has a dangerously high level of access to the Hammonds and has always been the family’s enemy, because she combines the clout of a sterling newspaper and the temerity to say that Elaine is a fool and a bad feminist to have stayed with her philandering husband.

When the show’s pilot aired on Sunday, this seemed like a stretch. If Political Animals is Hillary porn—a revisionist fanfic in which she leaves Bill and runs for president without his greasy hands on her apron strings, or Obama drops Biden to finish the marathon’s last leg with a proven winner—it’s also not a plausible alternate universe. A well-connected Washington friend confirms that, while it’s common scuttlebutt that HIllary will run in 2016 so as to "get a position that's not seen as coming from her relationship with a guy (wife, opponent who lost),” no one in real-life D.C. circles still thinks or cares about Bill Clinton’s infidelities or considers them a hindrance to the career of Hillary, who seems to be doing fine. Also, says my friend, “she'd never leave Bill; she needs him by her side exactly like people like The Good Wife's husband need their wives. It's all a political calculation.”

Then again, the day after the pilot aired, Slate reported, “Protesters threw tomatoes and shoes at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s motorcade Sunday during her visit to Egypt. Although a tomato hit an Egyptian official in the face, the armored car carrying Clinton was around the corner from the incident, reports Reuters. Protesters were chanting ‘Monica, Monica,’ in reference to Monica Lewinsky.” It’s a chilling picture. Just as Elaine can’t take a step without hearing that Bud has, in Berg’s exposition-laden phrase, “been linked to TV star Eva Flores,” Hillary may never quite be free of that cursed cigar.

Aside from being a wistful/schadenfreudistic fantasy about the Clintons and a muddled exploration of modern journalistic dilemmas, the show also wants to comment on feminism. In this season of “Why Women Still Can't Have It All,” in which Anne Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic story has brought work-family conflicts back into popular and two-gender discourse, we have two heroines (in purple), torn between professional ambition and personal and moral responsibility.

It looks so far as though Elaine will be okay with further sacrificing her privacy, since there’s probably not much left for the media to uproot. As for risking being perceived as unfeminine, it’s one of the show’s subtextual obsessions; we must continually be reminded that despite her ambition, Elaine is still smokin’ hot, that she has current sex, that she has a soft, motherly heart that just doesn’t show to those cold reporter and pundits.

But Berg, retroactively sheepish author of the book When Bitches Rule, has a residual yearning for traditional things even as she spews unlikely, and probably punishable, sexist abuse at her hot mini-Wonkette younger colleague. Her newspaper-editor boyfriend is cheating on her with said Wonkette, a demonic robot of new media (“My blog hit over one million unique users this month!”), but he’s such a blank-eyed Bil Keane nonentity that there must be another man in store for her. Perhaps the Hammonds’ anxious son Douglas (James Wolk), Elaine’s chief of staff who’s properly engaged to a nice girl? As the Gallant to his brother TJ’s Goofus, so eager to please his parents that he doesn’t notice his fiancee’s bulimia, Douglas is surely destined for some politically inconvenient temptation.

As for Goofus (Sebastian Stan), he seems to have been dropped into this ostensibly stentorian family from an episode of Entourage. He snorts coke, has nightclub-ownership dreams, says “bro” a lot, and gets away with murder. We’re meant to believe he’s just spoiled, but maybe the family is just afraid of what he’ll do if they don’t tolerate his whining, rudeness, and capacity for public embarrassment. That he was the first out gay offspring of a sitting president is meant to excuse his terrible behavior, and his noodling around on the piano demonstrates that he still has a sensitive soul. But the near-stereotype of a damaged, dangerous gay man is a retrograde premise that may entirely negate the show’s purportedly enlightened inclusion of a gay character. TJ may be standing in for the Bush twins, and seems to enjoy as few serious consequences for his manipulative-addict behavior as did Jenna, Barbara, and Bush Jr.

Perhaps appropriately for the perpetually identity-seeking USA network, in a season of far-fetched political promises, Political Animals wants to include a little something for everyone: a fast-paced Middle East story for the 24 junkies, some goofy canoodling for fans of Dave and The American President, the requisite staff backstabbing and wisecracking à la The West Wing, and a touch of Intervention for the rest of us. As a bonus, Ellen Burstyn, as sexy grandma Margaret Barrish, flings outré zingers in the tradition of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.

No one could accuse the miniseries of being intimidatingly cerebral or edgy in its gender politics, but, aside from the winking mise-en-scène of the purple outfits, semiotic crumbs seem to be scattered everywhere. Do they merely allude to familiar things —i.e., Barrish is a secret smoker with killer arms, combining both Obamas in one—or are they Agatha Christie–style clues to a sinister subplot we won’t see coming until the finale?

Americans never do quite seem to shake their royalist roots, and Political Animals is ultimately a familiar story of rich people in nice clothes, plotting successions and scandals from a comfortable position of power. Meanwhile, there’s a story here that hasn’t been told to my satisfaction. You know who really can’t shake her legacy? Monica Lewinsky. She’s in a purgatory of perpetual internship and disgrace despite her subsequent education and accomplishments.

I’d like to see a miniseries starring a Lewinsky character, wearing purple, with a political bucket of blood for the prom-queen politicos who left her high and dry. As Barrish explains to Berg, “You’ll never get to the next great moment if you don’t keep going.” When bitches rule, indeed.

Emily Gordon is the online editor of The Washington Spectator and has written the blog Emdashes since 2004. She tweets at @emdashes.