Even rabid fans may approach a continuation of “Mr. Robot” skeptically.
The first season won the Golden Globe for best drama and handed computer nerds their own version of “Game of Thrones.” It climaxed with the revelation that our hero Elliot Alderson was operating out of a dream world, eventually discovering that he’s actually Christian Slater.
USA Network had every reason to bask in the critical acclaim, then switch off its bold social experiment and get back to dishing out comfort-food procedurals.
Instead, the network has upped the ante. It increased its yearly order from 10 episodes to 12, opening Wednesday with a two-hour extravaganza and tacking on a post-mortem show, “Hacking Robot,” designed to give viewers a chance to exhale in unison.
Creator Sam Esmail is also stepping up his game; he’ll direct every episode this season, which is akin to a pro baseball player starting every rotation for a month.
In Season 1, Alderson’s ragtag team pulled off an elaborate hack that froze the country’s financial markets. Instead of establishing a new adventure, Esmail picks up the story line where he left off, with the world still reeling over their suddenly worthless ATM cards and Wall Street honchos contemplating suicide rather than enduring another appearance on CNBC.
Alderson (Rami Malek) has moved in with his mother, who may or may not be as real as Mrs. Bates in “Psycho,” and tries to stick to a predictable regimen that includes meals with a newly minted “Seinfeld” aficionado and afternoons sitting courtside at a local pickup basketball game.
But images of Slater — his late father — and an agenda straight out of Lex Luthor’s playbook — linger.
“How do I take off a mask when it stops being a mask, when it’s as much a part of me as I am?” says our unreliable narrator, perfectly encapsuling Esmail’s desire to burrow deeper into the character’s psyche.
To a certain extent, the journey pays off. The darker tone, which includes more than a couple of bullets to the head, forces the award-winning actors to push themselves even further. Slater hasn’t been this wonderfully frightening since he tortured Shannen Doherty in “Heathers.”
Esmail continues to unweave his tale with a sharp cinematic eye, starting with the bold, blocky lettering in the credits and continuing with inventive angles; cameras often shoot from above. The last time Phil Collins music was used this effectively was “Miami Vice.” The addition of Grace Gummer as a dogged FBI agent seems promising.
What the show’s creator can’t ratchet up is the viewers’ feeble intelligence. I got lost in various side plots and technical mumbo-jumbo last year — and continue to need assistance from some prime-time version of IT. Anyone who can explain what the kinky-sex couple on loan from Cinemax After Dark is doing in this highbrow thriller should instantly be put in charge of resurrecting Best Buy.
What my computer-illiterate brain can conclude is that Esmail has successfully recharged our fascination with “Mr. Robot.”
Or maybe it’s just a dream.
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin