Is 'Mr. Robot''s Soundtrack Stupid? 

In Sam Esmail's attempts to flout TV convention, and derail expectations, is he shooting his series in the foot?

As Mr. Robot’s first season wore on, the domineering, hip, loosely symbolic music cues became a bigger focal point. It became impossible to think of them as anything less than central elements of the show’s style. Now, with last Wednesday’s two-part, highly anticipated Season 2 premiere, the soundtrack of Sam Esmail’s show has become even more omnipresent, gifting the show — even more bizarrely paced and withholding than even before, thanks to Esmail’s near-total creative control — a stranger, harder-to-characterize mood.

Sometimes, the juxtapositions feel truly apropos of nothing, as if Esmail inserted a song he happened to be listening to when he wrote the scene. Such is the case with the full Phil Collins track which underscores one of the more eventful scenes in the two-episode premiere: Brian Stokes Mitchell as ECorp executive, burning 4 million dollars at the behest of FSociety. Some people love it. But in some sense, it scans like stylization and ironic juxtaposition for the sake of it — the decadence very much on the surface and drawing attention to itself. Phil Collins’s influence on synth-obsessed indie musicians of today, and increasingly hip cult status, probably doesn’t help this one go over any better.

However, one could also argue that Mr. Robot is seeking to rail against traditional soundtrack tics as a way of keeping the viewer constantly on edge. The idiosyncratic bursts of sound, and regular background ambience, are just another way Esmail is attempting to flout television convention. All the better if his choices don’t make “sense” narratively; Elliot’s reality is just as disjunct.

One doesn’t need to peruse his interviews to know that Esmail has a specific ideology behind his choices. Does that make the music cues feel any less distracting, and occasionally silly? No.

Sometimes, the approach recalls that of the mid-60s films of French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard at turns (see Alphaville or Weekend), with their absurdist, obtrusive soundtrack bursts, which seem cut in almost by accident. One of these instances: when Angela (Portia Doubleday) throws on her headphones, during her workday at ECorp, to listen to the instrumental opening of Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather.” She’s interrupted before the vocals even enter, just a few seconds later. The relationship between her character and the song — the motivational posters and tapes that surround her in her cubicle, her situation in the plot — is unclear.

TV shows, in these over-saturated times, fall into categories and stereotypes these days, no matter how hard the showrunners attempt to rebel against them. Esmail is trying as hard as he can — maybe, at this point, too hard — to avoid all of them. He refuses to adopt a flashy, repetitive credits sequence. He lights things improperly, films from angles which may obscure the thing you might expect to be focusing on in the scene, and follows characters (say, Wellick’s wife Joanna) you wouldn’t expect him to. This may, indeed, what he has to do to set Mr. Robot apart on such a crowded playing field.

But this doesn’t take away from how on-the-nose some of the scenes in the two-hour premiere of Mr. Robot Season 2 are. Esmail’s show is folding into its turn-of-the-millennium, psuedo-philosophical stylistic precedents even more. It’s not just Elliot’s voiceovers, and Mr. Robot’s (Christian Slater) angry opines. Even this season’s new and possibly hallucinatory “small business owner” character — played by Craig Ferguson — rattles on about the nature of reality — whether “all we have is our minds, whether there’s anything solid outside of our brains. Are we all just brains sitting in jars in a laboratory somewhere? What does Seinfeld say about all this?

The phenomenological overtones in the narrative — and Esmail’s constant prodding to not accept anything that we are seeing as reality — is almost suffocating. Mr. Robots first two episodes feel like the early chapters of some Gibsonian dystopian novel we arent sure we have the patience to get through. Conflict seems to be everywhere, and nowhere. And the melting pot of cuces from Lupe Fiasco to industrial techno to the overture of The Marriage of Figaro doesn’t help us figure out what we’re supposed to be sinking our teeth into.

This is both the entire point of Esmail’s choices, and the series’ biggest flaw. How frustrated is an audience willing to become? Do we watch shows to be satiated as fans (Game of Thrones Season 6) or forever tantalizing unsatisfied (*The Americans*)? When does causing frustration start to seem like too much of the point? Is Esmail losing track of why people loved his show in the first place? Is he reading too many fan boards, and trying top hard to?

Bringing up these issues is doubtless what he hoped we’d be doing at this point. All this doesn’t stop one from getting annoyed at the use of a World War I propaganda song against a scene of Elliot at his church group. We read into these things, against our better judgement; ever week we tune, in. Mr. Robot is an important TV show, but sometimes — because of things like its soundtrack — we wonder why, exactly.

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