It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…or it might have been just the worst of times, if you’re solely looking at the critical response to the second season runs of USA’s “Mr. Robot” and Lifetime’s “UnREAL.” In the eyes of critics, both shows seemed to have suffered from the all-to-familiar sophomore slump: a seemingly sub-par follow-up to a beloved first season. It’s a challenge that many critically-lauded TV series face; the hype surrounding the show and its first-season success gets so big that it becomes close to impossible to live up to growing expectations.
(I would like to note though, that I thought the second season of “Mr. Robot” was great. Sure, it had its weak moments, but at the end of the day it was just as fascinating and engrossing as the first season. “UnREAL” is a different story, but I’ll get to that later.)
The similarities between the trajectories of both “Mr. Robot” and “UnREAL” are hard to ignore, especially now they that both seem to find themselves in a similar predicament. Both shows debuted on networks that weren’t necessarily known for inventive and interesting programming. USA was the home of suave men in suits (like on, say…”Suits“) and Lifetime was all about TV movies where women were in peril (and “Dance Moms“). “Mr. Robot” and “UnREAL” both signified a shift for their respective networks ; USA wanted to get a little more artsy and Lifetime wanted to get a little more empowered. Both shows grabbed attention early on for their unexpected presence and unique story lines and while they might not have been bringing in the viewers like a “Big Bang Theory” or a “Grey’s Anatomy” does, they were definitely considered some of the biggest TV success stories of summer 2015.
Cut to summer 2016, where the success stories seem to have changed. Both shows, riding on the high that their critical darling first seasons provided, decided to go big. “UnREAL” brought the always hot (and always challenging) topic of race into the series with the reveal that the suitor on ‘Everlasting,’ the dating-show-within-a-show, would be black, something that their real-life counterpart, “The Bachelor,” had yet to do. They also chose to focus more on the personal lives of the people that make “Everlasting” tick, an element that seemed to only be on the periphery of the first season unless it directly involved the making of the show. “Mr. Robot,” on the other hand, decided to widen its focus, delving more into the complicated lives of the people surrounding Elliot and how those lives intersected and linked into the bigger, mysterious overall plan for the show. There was even an entire episode that was Elliot-free, shocking given how closely the first season followed its leading man.
The decisions made by both shows were certainly risky and paid off (or didn’t) in varying degrees. “UnREAL” was heavily criticized (and rightly so, if you ask me) for bringing a topic like race into the discussion to only really use it as a vehicle for its white main character’s internal turmoil. The show had been known for its clever and thoughtful commentary on society and the lack of that in its second season, despite having a storyline rife with it, was disappointing. Equally disappointing was the fact that the focus on the personal lives of the characters instead of their work on ‘Everlasting’ caused the show to devolve into the kind of campy, overly soapy content that Lifetime had been known for prior to this breath of fresh air. By the season finale, viewers and critics alike felt fatigued and betrayed. It seemed as if “UnREAL” had hurdled off a cliff, much like two of its characters in one of the more ridiculous moments of the second season finale.
Feelings of fatigue and betrayal seemed to also play a role in the response to “Mr. Robot’s” second season, although in not as dramatic of terms. Once it became evident early on that all was not as it seemed (again) in Elliot’s world, viewers and critics became concerned that there was going to be another big plot-twisty reveal similar to the first season, something that could easily run the risk of feeling repetitive and tired. And then it happened (almost exactly as some had predicted) and the response was more “I knew that” than “whaaaaat?!?” Some also seemed to grow tired of the shift in focus to the other characters, although it made some sense following the second season’s big reveal. Put all of that together with an increasingly dark, confusing and mysterious story line (that only looks like it will get more dark, confusing and mysterious in season three) and you appear to get a group of fans and followers that don’t know how much more they can handle. (I, for one, love the confusion and mystery but I also have a lot of free time to sit around and try to piece things together.)
What was it that caused both of these shows to fall out of the good graces of the critics and viewers that gave them so many accolades last summer? It seems as though the pressure to continue to churn out brilliance got to be a bit much and as a result some things fell apart. That being said, it’s also near-impossible for the expectations of a viewer to completely match up with the plans of a writer or showrunner. Now that we live in a world where predictions and theories have become so ever-present, it can be difficult at times to separate what people want to see versus what is actually part of the show.
In terms of a possibility for recovery, I think “Mr. Robot” has a much better chance than “UnREAL.” While writers and fans definitely found some faults with “Mr. Robot’s” twisty second season, the consensus still seemed to be in most circles that the show is worth keeping around. “UnREAL,” on the other hand, dug itself into a bit of a whole that will be pretty difficult to get out of. It will definitely be interesting to see how both shows maneuver life after a sophomore slump. If only we didn’t have to wait until next summer to find out!
What did you think of the second seasons of “Mr. Robot” and “UnREAL”? Think they’ll be able to move past a sophomore slump? Concerned that my blog is slowly becoming a “Mr. Robot” blog? No worries. Now that the season is over, I’ll find something else to become overly obsessed with. Before I leave you to emotionally prepare for tonight’s presidential debate though, don’t forget…