Mr. Robot

Prime Choice

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

E-Commerce giant Amazon launched Prime Video a few weeks ago to its Indian customers. Prime Video is an online video streaming service, like Netflix and HotStar. The service is free, rather, packaged with the ‘Prime’ subscription that Amazon offers for its customers, where, for an annual fee, they receive extra discounts, free delivery and other privileges. Although Prime Video is probably one of the cheapest subscription services out there at Rs. 500/- a year (not to mention the host of benefits that you’d also be receiving as an Amazon customer), it must be said that there isn’t much variety on offer, especially on the TV show front. But hey, when life gives you lemons, you make lists – so here’s my pick of the TV series that are available on Prime Video.

1. Mozart In The Jungle – Based on Blair Tindall’s 2005 memoir of the same title, Mozart in The Jungle is a series about the inner workings of orchestras, and what it takes to make it in (western) classical music today. A young, unconventional new maestro is appointed at the (fictional) New York Symphony to shake things up and bring in more audiences. The motley set of characters might seem too many at the start, but it doesn’t take too much time for the show to draw you in to its world. The episodes are short, and move fast, so if you find yourself binge watching for five hours straight, well, I warned you.

2. Transparent – Transparent has been a bit of a constant fixture on every award show’s nomination list ever since it made its debut in 2014, and with good reason. This show about a seventy-year-old man who comes out as a transgender to his family, and the world, is heartwarming in ways you don’t expect it to be. Transparent takes on heavy issues like gender and sexuality with a light touch, and a great deal of sensitivity and humour.

3. The Girlfriend Experience – The Girlfriend Experience traces the story of a law student interning in a corporate firm who moonlights as an escort for rich men. The show initially seems to be a tiring commentary about prostitution, but halfway through the first season becomes much more complex and crosses over multiple genres. It’s dark and at times, quite morbid, but riveting throughout.

4. The Night Manager – Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman come together to create magic on screen in this BBC produced mini-series. I have raved about this show enough times on this space, but I’ll reiterate here that it truly is one of the best mini-series out there in terms of story-telling, acting and adrenaline.

5. Mr. Robot – Mr.Robot is easily one of the edgiest television shows out there, with its hacking based storyline and borderline neurotic protagonist, Elliot (Rami Malek). Mr. Robot is thrilling, but also terrifying, for every episode is a reminder of the colossal amount of information that the internet has on and about us, and how vulnerable we are to it. It’s a show that’s as much about hacking people, as it is about hacking computers.

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Of Awards and Underdogs

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

The 68th Emmy Awards came to a close the previous Sunday night (Monday morning, for you and me), pulling the curtains down on an another year of television based glitz, glamour and predictability. While most of the awards went to the same people and shows it usually did (Julia Louis-Dreyfus picked up her fifth straight Emmy), there were a few notable moments from the Awards ceremony.

Rami Malek took home the Emmy in the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series category for Mr.Robot, in a ‘surprise’ win that felt obligatory. There’s no denying that Malek was excellent in his performance as the neurotic hacker, Elliot, but it felt unfair to me because some of the other actors in his category (and by some, I mean Matthew Rhys) had given better performances over a longer span of time. Mr. Robot’s second season is already far less impressive than the first, so although the Emmys took the apparently unconventional route with this winner, it didn’t come across as deserving. The Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series was also a surprise, albeit more meritorious – Tatiana Maslany, after three years of being snubbed, took home the award for playing multiple characters in Orphan Black.

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Aziz Ansari also took home an Emmy, although it wasn’t in the Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series category. Instead, Ansari, along with Alan Yang, won the award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for Master of None. While Ansari didn’t get to talk much (the orchestra began playing before he could even finish his thank-yous), Yang made a comment in his speech about how there are 17 million Asian Americans in the United States, and about the same number of Italian Americans. He went on to say that the Italians have The Sopranos, The Godfather, Rocky and Goodfellas, whereas the Asians have Long Duk Dong (an Asian exchange student in the 1984 film Sixteen Candles, known for his bizarre behavior and over the top clumsiness). Yang also asked Asian American parents to get their kids “cameras instead of violins”. Yang’s speech was definitely one of the more dramatic ones that the evening saw, but it comes at an important time, after all, it has taken till 2016 for Asians and South Asians to be portrayed with nuance and depth, and not as inhuman parents constantly preoccupied with their children’s grades or bumbling owners of grocery shops.

The final hour of the Emmy’s was as predictable as the final hour of most masala movies – surprise winners notwithstanding, everyone knew who the winner was even before their names were announced. People vs OJ Simpson, which was nominated in a whopping 22 categories, took home the Outstanding Limited Series award. The Outstanding Drama Series went to Game of Thrones. Veep won Outstanding Comedy Series for the second year in a row. Now, People vs OJ Simpson, Veep, and Game of Thrones, are without doubt, studies in television excellence which deserved to win – but why does disappointment linger? Maybe it’s because from time to time, we want a David toppling a Goliath. Maybe it’s because we watch far too much television, for if we didn’t, we would know that underdogs hijacking spotlights doesn’t really happen in the real world.

The Guessing Game

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

I suppose the easiest way of explaining the Emmy awards is to say that they’re like the Oscars, but for Television. There is a Television Academy in Los Angeles, similar to the Motion Picture Academy, which honours the best of Prime Time Television. The awards are determined in an identical manner as well, through peer voting. The Emmy awards differ from the Oscars however, in the manner in which the votes are cast. Unlike the Oscars, where every voting member of the Motion Picture Academy (which is roughly about six thousand member strong) gets to vote in all the categories, the members of the Television Academy are split into groups based on the expertise. So in essence, actors vote for acting categories, writers for writing categories and so on, automatically making the voter group smaller, and the awards, very competitive. As if that’s not hard enough, the quality of television these days ensures that the difference between an Emmy and second place would have only been the barest of margins.

The nominations this year have been mostly predictable, like Game of Thrones finding itself nominated in a whopping twenty three categories, but with a few surprises, like Aziz Ansari being nominated in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category, as well as his show Master of None, being nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Series. If Aziz Ansari wins, he will be the first of South Asian descent to win an Emmy in the lead comedy actor category (he’s the first to even be nominated), but faces stiff competition with the likes of Jeffrey Tambor (who plays a woman, Maura Pfefferman, in Transparent) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley) also vying for the honour.

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The Night Manager found itself in the honours list as well, with the show being nominated for Outstanding Limited Series, and its leads, Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman nominated for acting honours. It’s hard to say if they’d win though, because non-Americans haven’t really had the greatest runs in the Emmys, and also because People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is in the same category. People vs OJ Simpson scored twenty two nominations, making it second only to Game of Thrones with respect to the volume of nominations, so while I have a great deal of love for The Night Manager, I won’t be putting my money on them.

This year also saw The Americans finally being given the nominations it deserved after three years of being in the Emmy snub list. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Drama, and the leads, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have both been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress and Actor in a Drama Series categories. Keri Russell is up against some stiff competition with Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder), Taraji P Henson (Empire) and Robin Wright (House of Cards), and so is Matthew Rhys, who is competing with the likes of Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot).

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I hope The Americans win an award this year, not because the performances and writing were better than that of their fellow nominees’ (I mean, did you take a look at that list? They’re all impeccable), but because The Americans deals with a subject matter that is complicated, and uncomfortable – it makes you empathise with your enemies, and turns your perceptions of the bad guy on its head. It is intense, for me, has taken over the spot which was filled by Better Call Saul as the best drama series on television at the moment. So could this be the year of the Emmy underdogs? Or will it be just another year where the rest of us television nuts wax lyrical about our deserving, off-beat favourites, but Game of Thrones and House of Cards split all the awards between themselves?
Probably the latter.

2015 in Television

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It’s time for us to welcome the new year with family, friends, celebrations, and of course, somewhat pointless lists. So without further ado, here are my TV favourites from 2015 (in no particular order):

  • Empire – Empire is a musical soap opera about a Hip Hop mogul, and the lengths he’ll go to stay on top. It’s the television equivalent of the pizzas that have cheese stuffed in the crusts, the kind which oozes yellow, processed glory, on to your fingers. Yes it’s disgustingly over the top, and you can’t really tell people how much you enjoy it, although you know that they’d enjoy it just as much as you do when they eat it, I mean, watch it. {FX India}

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  • Better Call Saul – Better Call Saul was my favourite show this year. Yes, it’s a spin off of Breaking Bad, and there are plenty of recurring characters, but surprisingly, it has an entirely unique tone, and while one is occasionally reminded of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul stands on its own. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Wolf Hall – Wolf Hall is a literary mini series which was produced by the BBC. The cast and screenplay is splendid, and Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece comes alive over the course of 6, hour long episodes. I do hope that more show makers take the hint from Wolf Hall and make more mini series from literary classics – that way I don’t have to pretend like I’ve read them anymore.

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  • Game of Thrones – Dragons! Kings! Betrayals! Dragons! Death! Snow! Did I mention Dragons? The fifth season of the epic fantasy story came to an end this year, with a finale that shook the world, or at least, broke the internet. Game of Thrones is the show whose return I’m most looking forward to in 2016. {HBO}

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  • Daredevil – While I enjoyed both The Flash and Arrow, Daredevil takes the super hero genre of television to a whole new level, the way Nolan’s The Dark Knight changed the game for films. Netflix has come out with a winner, yet again, and there is no doubt that Daredevil is the benchmark for super hero television shows to come.

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  • Master of None – If you’re not socialising with your family, and have plenty of time in your hands this weekend, why not cosy up with the entire first season of Aziz Ansari’s comedy for all seasons? It’s one the most relatable shows I’ve watched on international television (and not just because Ansari hails from Tamil Nadu), and the perfect candidate for marathon viewing.

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  • Quantico – This is right on top of my list of unexpected favourites. I didn’t want to like it, I watched it with great prejudice but eventually gave in to the racy screenplay and exaggerated drama. The show is addictive, and Priyanka Chopra has made an assured debut into American television and proved that she is a bonafide star. The penultimate episode before the season finale, and the season finale itself were a tad frustrating and I’m hoping (against hope) that it sorts itself out when it comes back next year. {Star World}

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  • The Affair – One often talks about “mindless television” – The Affair is the opposite. It demands your attention in a manner that is unforgiving, and if you blink, you miss. The Affair follows a story of infidelity narrated through different perspectives, none of which are objective, and leaves it to the viewer to be the judge. I’m a chronic multi-tasker, but The Affair ensured that my attention only belonged to the screen. {FX India}

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  • Mr. Robot – A terrific and well researched show that goes into the psyche and life of hackers. Given the rising coverage with respect to the hacking group “Anonymous” in the mainstream news, Mr. Robot is an excellent way to better understand hacking, and how the right information in the wrong hands could potentially break the world as we know it. {Colors Infinity}

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  • Modern Family – It’s not from 2015, technically, but I have been watching it religiously, all year. I could never tire of this show, or it’s characters, and I am yet to find an episode I haven’t guffawed out loud in. A perennial favourite to end the list! {Star World}

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Domo Arigato

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

While the idea of hacking has been something that has always fascinated me, its portrayal in film and television has been mostly rubbish – the “hacker” is either a really skinny, or grossly overweight guy who wears a pair of chunky glasses, brings in words like “bypass”, “security protocol”, “router” and “access” to conversation and is the one to crack a few jokes every time the rest of the group gets serious. All we know about the hacker is that he’s the guy who can solve any problem in minutes by furiously typing on his keyboard.

Mr.Robot is a series that revolves around hacking, and one that takes its technology very seriously. Unlike most film or television portrayals where it’s only the hacker’s keyboard that’s seen, here we’re shown his computer screen. There are no special visual effects to make the hacking seem cool – they’re probably the most genuine looking processes I’ve seen on screen. What makes the hacking exciting, are the characters, and their personal stories. The show follows the perspective of Elliot (Rami Malek), a computer programmer with anti-social disorder. We are audience to his everything that goes on in his head (there is one episode where we can even see his drug induced dreams). When he says that he has reprogrammed his mind to hear “Evil Corp” instead of “E Corp”, we only hear Evil Corp throughout.

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Elliot is a vigilante hacker by night, which means that he gets into the computers of people he has suspicions about, and tips the police if he finds anything incriminating. In the very first episode, he hacks into a coffee shop owner’s computer because the internet speeds at the coffee shop were unlike any other’s, and because “good doesn’t come without condition”. As it would turn out, the owner managed a child pornography website, and thanks to Elliot’s tip, gets arrested.

It isn’t long before Elliot is recruited into FSociety, a group of hackers led by “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater). Mr. Robot, and FSociety, are on a mission to bring about a revolution by destroying big conglomerates and rendering them powerless, a mission, to which Elliot is key. While the idea of throwing a spanner in the works is enticing, it also comes with terrible consequences. The rest of the season follows Elliot, his choices, and the consequences which occur when you set in motion something you don’t have complete control on.

The reason I love Mr.Robot is that although there is a lot of technical computer terms that thrown around (in the very first episode, the show thrusts words like “DDOS Attacks” and “RUDY Attacks” at us), there is no secondary character explaining them in layman terms. The show trusts the audience to be smart enough to figure what is going on. Rami Malek is spectacular as Elliot, the wide eyed, socially neurotic hacker with a past, as is Christian Slater, who plays the bordering on insane, yet strangely likeable Mr. Robot.

What really hit home for me while watching the show was the massive amount of information that the Internet has about the rest of us, no, the massive amount of information that we have been feeding it. With every status update we post, every tweet, every Instagram post, with every thought that we type out loud, we give the Internet greater control on us. Given how active I am on social media, these aren’t things I really think about, but watching Elliot scroll through hacked inboxes, Twitter and Facebook profiles to determine a person’s nature, was terrifying.

The all pervasive theme of Mr Robot, is vulnerability. The vulnerability of systems, the vulnerability of networks, and the vulnerability of people. Mr Robot isn’t a show about hacking computers. It’s a show about hacking people.

(Mr Robot is presently running on Colors Infinity)