A trio of terrific television treats

[spoilers for the premiere episodes of Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, and The Night Of to follow]

Summer TV used to be a joke. But now there really isn’t the traditional cycle of television anymore. Sure, there are still the heavy hitters released in the fall, but thanks to streaming services and premium cable, seasons don’t matter anymore. Three terrific shows had premieres this week: the second season of Mr. Robot, the entire first season of Stranger Things, and the miniseries The Night Of. They’re three shows you’re going to have to treat yourself to this summer.

mr robot s2

Mr. Robot (USA, Wednesdays)

Last summer, USA – known for fan favorites, but not critically acclaimed shows – unleashed Mr. Robot on an unassuming world. The first season consumed the world and enlightened us all on technology, mental disorders, and how to make a twist ending work. I won’t talk too much about that amazing first season. It was my favorite new show of 2016. If you haven’t watched it: go watch it. And bookmark this blog post to read later. Seriously.

The second season, two-part premiere seemed pretty straight forward. Elliot (Rami Malek) is on a strict regimen to keep Mr. Robot out of his head and to stay low after the Five-Nine attack. He has a new best friend named Leon (rapper Joey Bada$$) who just discovered Seinfeld and eats three meals a day with him on a very strict schedule. He also goes to watch a local basketball pick up game where he meets Ray (Craig Robinson). Meanwhile, Evil Corp and Fsociety deal with the aftermath of the month-old attack.

But Mr. Robot isn’t a surface level show. You know there’s a theory right? You can read a lot about it if you scour the subreddit or just read a basic version of it over at Vulture. The basic premise is that Elliot is somehow in a mental institution or prison. I’m leaning towards mental institution because that would be he could get out at some point and still continue with Fsociety. Also, on Andy Greenwald’s Hacking Robot aftershow, he asks the cast what is one word that describes their character arc and Malek said, “committed.” That could be a dual meaning.

It would make a lot of sense, but I don’t think it can be the entire season twist. If Elliot is in fact committed somewhere, it was pretty obvious and should be revealed a lot earlier than the last episode.

The best part about this show is how intricately planned it seems to be. Creator Sam Esmail has created a tightly designed world. So much so that he didn’t trust anyone else to direct the 12 episodes of this season. The showrunner is taking on the duties and I have to say that I’m not as worried as I was originally after the premiere. His cinema quality sequences really do make it feel like we’re watching a film. The opening of the season alone felt like something Tarantino would do for his opening credits.

stranger things

Stranger Things (Netflix, 8 episodes streaming)

Netflix’s latest show mixes a terrific period piece, coming of age story with sci-fi, as well as the type of modern mystery all good television seems to need to have. I have only watched one episode because I wanted to just be able to write about the opening chapters of each of these shows.

The pilot “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers” sets up an interesting premise. It’s 1983 in Indiana. Four nerdy boys are playing Dungeons and Dragons and then Will Byers goes missing on his way home. A lot alludes to the fact that aliens are in play, but it might not exactly be that. It most likely is though because we see a researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy get mysteriously killed, a shaven-headed girl in a medical gown wandering around, as well as some sort of living organism on the wall in the Dept. of Energy.

I don’t want there to be a twist where this isn’t a sci-fi alien abduction. I want a piece of media to finally do aliens right. I want this to be what Super 8 tried to be. I’m grateful that this is a Netflix show because the streaming giant allows for a lot of creative control. My favorite particular about the first episode was the set designs and wardrobes. About 90% of the presentation felt completely authentic to 1983 (even though I wasn’t born yet). I loved the choice of songs in two particular scenes: “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and Toto’s “Africa.” One thing that stood out as a weird choice was the insult of “douche bag” being thrown out. Seems like that wasn’t used heavily until much later in life. But maybe I’m wrong.

My sister watched the episode with me and said “I’m glad this is a Netflix show because they don’t mind casting ugly people. They just care about good actors.” It’s not that the actors are ugly though; it’s just that they’re not big names – aside from Winona Ryder, really – and that’s what is so interesting. Both Ash and I did note that Natalia Dyer (who plays Nancy Wheeler) sometimes looks like a young Emmy Rossum depending on the angle.

The other thing I already appreciate is how many threads are currently in play: the mom and the cops looking for Will, his friends looking, the mysterious bad guys with guns, the teenage smart girl dating the hot popular guy, and so on. It’s incredibly focused while setting up numerous equally-weighted subplots.

I’ll have a lot more to say once I finish the eight episodes that are currently streaming on Netflix. I’m trying to avoid spoilers so I’m sorry that I haven’t included a lot more theories. That’s the unfortunate business of streaming every episode of a show at once. We all feel the need to binge or get spoiled.

the night of ep1

The Night Of (HBO, Sundays)

Speaking of nothing being spoiled: it’s hard to not want to read the Wikipedia of Criminal Justice, the British show The Night Of is based on because the first episode was definitely anxiety inducing.

It’s about a young Pakistani-American who takes his dad’s cab late at night to go to a party, but gets sidetracked when he picks up a mysterious girl. He ends up doing some drugs and having sex with her. Then wakes up sometime before dawn to find her gruesomely murdered. Then a series of unfortunate events take place. He claims he didn’t commit the crime, but he and we can’t be entirely sure.

This was originally supposed to be a James Gandolfini starring show, but HBO passed on the project and then Gandolfini died. HBO decided to green light it eventually and John Turturro stepped into the lawyer role. The pilot didn’t give him much of a chance to shine, but instead focused on Riz Ahmed’s Nasir (Naz) Khan. Thank god they did because Ahmed can most certainly carry every scene for over an hour. His nuanced performance, coupled with the cinematography, gave it a hyperreal feeling.  The style felt a lot like Michael Mann’s Collateral. I mean this in a good way: it looked like it was filmed on the latest iPhone. It picked up all of the real life shine so many shows seem to miss out on.

The other best thing about the show was the pacing. Creators Steven Zallian (director) and Richard Price (writer) gave the show time to breathe. Nothing felt rushed. In fact, it felt incredibly tedious to watch Naz get picked up on cameras all night knowing how it would come back to bite him in the ass. There were no twists and turns in this episode; it unfolded exactly as it should have. Yet, that didn’t take away from the tension in any of the scenes.

Going forward, I’ve heard the series does dovetail into some surprises while exploring a lot of current political topics. It’s going to be a wild eight episodes. I’m glad it’s so short because I don’t think my heart can handle anything longer, but I know I’m going to regret saying that once it’s over. I can already tell this is going to be one of the most important shows of the year.

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