They say every piece of film is a documentary of its own creation. No wonder Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot looks like a funhouse. Our hero sits mostly off-screen, his hooded head peeking out from a corner. A conversation on a park bench is shot in solo portraits, even though the speakers are sitting right next to each other. It’s already unsettling, this would-be-serene image of a woman alone on a park bench exaggerated until she’s all the way at the edge of the frame, crowded by all that nothing. And then her friend hands her something, a disembodied arm suddenly puncturing the frame. Even in ordinary scenes unencumbered by the main character’s paranoia or covert activities, Mr. Robot is off. The reality it presents is fractured and distorted and Photoshopped in the more common sense of the word. Mr. Robot is at war with itself.
Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal has an older sense of beauty, prizing symmetrical compositions, rich coloring, and flow. But it’s no more discrete. We’re always two places at once, say, the physical setting of a therapist’s office and the visualized space of a Florentine cathedral. Conversation is similarly confused, always both metaphor and meaning. The bloodbath at the end of Hannibal’s second season leaves three of the four main characters dying. Season three updates us on the characters episode by episode, so that it takes four hours to resolve a cliffhanger that would be obvious in short order to any bystanders who happened to witness the scene, call for help, and follow the patients to the hospital. But Hannibal isn’t interested in guiding us straight through a story. Discontinuity is the whole point.
Mr. Robot and Hannibal are the two loudest examples of a modernist trend in TV that includes Adult Swim comedies and Arrested Development’s fourth season. One’s a little cubist, one’s a little surrealist, but what these shows have in common is destruction. Not deconstruction—the building doesn’t matter nearly as much as the breakdown. Mr. Robot and Hannibal disintegrate before our eyes. It’s hard to know what’s real. They’re dark shows where the storytelling breaks down as much as the stories, TV about misanthropes by misanthropes. This is self-destructive TV.
The roots go back to Twin Peaks, which looks more and more like the James Marshall of this here golden age. From formal techniques, like dialogue playing backward, to the story itself, famously trailing off rather than concluding with the solving of the central murder, David Lynch and Mark Frost violate the audience’s sense of spatial or narrative integrity. Twin Peaks isn’t quite whole.
One of the show’s most flagrant violations has become one of the scariest moments in television history. A demonic killer named BOB who haunts the story suddenly notices his audience and lunges over the couch at us. Television characters aren’t supposed to do that. This voyeuristic relationship is supposed to go one way. But the show suckers us into this world, inviting us to be flies on the wall of every tawdry dump in town, and all the while it was lying in wait to come at us like a hungry spider. It takes a lot for a serious drama to violate the fourth wall like that. So it’s a rare sensation, the skin-crawling feeling that you’re watching a TV character who sees you.
I felt it during Hannibal and Mr. Robot this year. Hannibal practically orchestrates an homage to that moment, with its disturbed killer Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) suddenly turning his neck in our direction, seemingly at us, and approaching to investigate. If he’s not looking right at the camera, it’s close enough, and I had to pause the episode to recover myself. Mr. Robot, on the other hand, is guided by direct address. Our hacker hero Elliot (Rami Malek) is speaking to us, the collective audience apparently being his imaginary friend. The other thing you have to know is the camerawork is usually fairly static, but sometimes it breaks into these wild handheld moments that stick out like a sore thumb. After one particular climax that has us feeling incredible sympathy for Elliot, he suddenly grabs the camera that’s filming him and accuses it—us—of betrayal. It twists our sympathy into defensiveness, paranoia, and concern, and it turns the rickety handheld camerawork into a chronicle of Elliot’s fear. For an effect that seemed cheap up to that point, that moment demonstrates amazing command of tone and technique, the visual anarchy perfectly matching the story.
Like other art ahead of its time, Twin Peaks didn’t immediately inspire a stampede of formal experimenters on network TV. But it did stick with a teenage Eric Wareheim, who would grow up to make his own rule-breaking shows with Tim Heidecker. Wareheim and Heidecker—known collectively as Tim And Eric—are best known as pioneers of anti-comedy, an absurdist strain of apparently earnest but exaggerated silliness. It’s often the kind of thing people say, “It’s so not funny that it goes all the way around to being funny again” about. Other times it’s immediately ridiculous. But the point is, Tim And Eric are experimenters, and they’re not afraid not to be funny.
Extrapolate the aggressive destructive impulse behind their comedy to camerawork, editing, and lighting, and you get a sense of the cable-access talk show parodies produced by their Abso Lutely imprint, Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule and The Eric André Show, two of the best shows of the decade so far and the vanguard of self-destructive TV. Check It Out! is the platonic ideal of the inept talk show, an educational show run by an idiot where nothing is learned. But it isn’t just the somewhat incomprehensible stories of Brule’s life that are remarkable. The main attraction is the hilariously bad storytelling, the jarring way scenes are spliced together or the freeze-frames that catalog John C. Reilly’s exploration of a whole new world of expressions.
The Eric André Show is the devil to Check It Out!’s angel. It’s the same trainwreck of production, but it adds intent to the violence. Brule is an accidental fuck-up; André has given up on the world. Instead of wannabe educational segments, André goes out on the street to embarrass people. Instead of knowledgeable guests stymied by a distracted host, André interviews celebrities who are clearly being impersonated by someone who looks nothing like them. That’s how little he regards his audience. And the ensuing interviews are passive-aggressive standoffs shredded to staccato non sequiturs in the editing room. What does it matter anyway? Check It Out! is masterfully incompetent, but TV doesn’t get more self-destructive than The Eric André Show.
Some cable series have dipped their toes into the pool. Take a structural gimmick show like The Affair, which tells the same story from multiple perspectives with various discrepancies. In one way it’s competing with itself, but it’s only attacking from one direction and the sides are so clear that it’s not exactly self-destructive. A better example is Louie, which can change the details of Louie’s life from episode to episode so that only the essence of the character remains. It generally settles down into a comfortable continuity as it goes along, but even in the early going it’s too essentially optimistic to indulge self-destruction. Hannibal and Mr. Robot don’t have that problem. They’re about characters not just giving in or blindly accepting but thoroughly embracing their own violent powers, and the jagged storytelling takes after the stories.
The boldest example of self-destructive TV is Arrested Development’s fourth season. Mitchell Hurwitz constructed the season by breaking down a years-long story into personal journeys, so one episode we’d follow Michael Bluth, and the next we’d follow GOB over that same length of time. It’s a hairball, with all those loose strands knotted in the middle. Unlike the Adult Swim comedies, it isn’t a performance, and unlike Hannibal and Mr. Robot, there’s nothing dreamlike about it. We know this alienating season is authentic from the start. There’s no copping out about how messy it is, primarily in structure but also in its cheapo effects (themselves a joke) and its set. Over the course of the season, Lucille’s showroom penthouse becomes a dump as the characters descend deeper and deeper into selfishness. Best and worst of all, it’s unfinished. As the third season shows, Hurwitz knows how to bring things full circle to reach a tidy, classical conclusion. Season four isn’t shoddy craftsmanship but pointed, purposeful chaos. Invested audience members will find emotional catharsis at the end, and the patient sufferers will find sweet release, but no destination is reached. It’s a series of people discovering Tony Soprano epiphanies and promptly ignoring them. It’s the bleakest season of the show, the better to suit its characters’ shriveling hearts.
Hannibal and Mr. Robot bring these techniques to ostensibly mainstream dramas. They don’t have a lot of viewers, so maybe they’re not so mainstream, but NBC and USA are a far cry from Adult Swim or Showtime. And the fact that they’re dramas, not comedies—meant to be taken seriously and followed from episode to episode while tearing themselves apart—is some serious trailblazing. Hannibal’s a slow seduction, such that you hardly realize the world’s falling apart until you’re already well and truly fucked. But Mr. Robot is so decadent and uncontrolled I scoffed at first. How am I going to take this for a whole season, much less a series? A few episodes later I was giggling at every extreme composition. It’s kind of funny to see two people talking face to face in that TV way, only one of them is off-screen—but only partly, because their bodies are so close together that you can’t cleanly separate them with a vertical line. It’s almost a sight gag.
If Hannibal is over for good, it ends with a fitting sight, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter tumbling into bed together—I mean, falling off a cliff together. Will has been brought to violence, he’s come to enjoy it, and he’s embraced his psychotically snobby, people-eating enemy like a lover after a workout. In other words, he’s completely lost himself. Destroying his body is the logical next step. That said, Bryan Fuller wanted and still wants a fourth season, so it’s not necessarily a suicide.)
Mr. Robot, on the other hand, has at least another season in store. The first is a trip. One surprise is so obvious that it distracts you from all the others that are in store. The question all along has been “How committed is Elliot to his chaotic goals?” We should probably be wondering the same of Sam Esmail.