"Mr. Robot": A Shining Example of 21st Century Existential Anger

The life of the 21st century young adult has become one of the main themes in a lot of today’s programming. Those of us who have grown up in the late ’80s and early ’90s now make up the demographic show creators and networks want to appeal to. Some of us might even be show creators.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the post-post modern shows on television, like Steven Universe, Adventure Time and Regular Show are cartoons. An entire post could be made about why many of the shows created by Gen Yers are cartoons. My theory is that the creators are recreating their past experiences with Saturday morning cartoons (and Cartoon Network) and melding them with their current experiences as adults trying to make it in an America that’s just now coming out of its Man in the Gray Flannel Suit ideology, in which jobs aren’t as stable as they used to be, marriage is no longer considered a requirement, and having children is an act that can now be put off for later.

Some of the live-action shows about Gen Y also go revert back to the creator’s childhood. Shows like The Goldbergs, Fresh Off the Boat and Surviving Jack all have The Wonder Years method of going back to a time gone by. The only strange thing about these shows is that “a time gone by” is the ’80s or ’90s, two time periods that still seem like yesterday to a lot of us. Again, with these shows, viewers can look back to their childhoods while figuring out how to reconcile their former lives with their current adult ones.

But while these shows capture the confusion and wonderment of coming into one’s own as an adult in these times, USA’s Mr. Robot, starring Rami Malek, provides a point of view that quite a lot of shows, cartoon and otherwise, lack. Mr. Robot shows the brutality of 21st century existentialism and how, with even more conglomerates vying for our attention and with the internet as integral to life as it has been, it’s become even harder to realize what it is you are supposed to contribute to the world. 

To give quick background to the show, Malek plays Elliot, one of the brightest stars at a cyber-security firm. Even though he’s one of the best people on the team, Elliot is adverse to friendship and refuses contact of anyone except for his childhood friend Angela (and, when things get too bad, his drug dealer). Elliot has trouble figuring out what his purpose in life is, and the closest he’s come to feeling fulfilled is hacking the computers of businessmen, finding out their secrets, and calling them out on their bad behavior. Eventually, he’s tapped by a secret society who wants him to help them topple the biggest corporation and “save” America from capitalism gone awry.

The thing that hooked me to Mr. Robot was during Elliot’s counseling session. When the counselor asks him why he doesn’t reach out to others, he goes on a tirade about how intrinsic society is on the “the one percent of the one percent,” how our lives are ruled by people running businesses that are perceived as being too big to fail, how we live tied to social media and other numbing agents that make us forget that we are pawns in a pyramid scheme. Elliot’s frustration with society not realizing its potential and how people choose to live life being led by others is the same frustration many people, including myself, have about the world. That frustration is probably the greatest for those who are in Generation Y.

Every generation is expected to do better than the last one, but the angst Ben Braddock felt in The Graduate—with the older generation expecting him to follow in their footsteps and change the world simultaneously while giving him no answers as to how to achieve any of this—seems to have intensified with Gen Y-ers. We also are expected to change the world, but the world is way more complicated than it was in The Graduate or even in A Different World. 

The worry of “making it” is also compounded with fixing global warming, saving the animals, solving the energy crisis, and other unbelievable tasks. On top of all that, Gen Y has to face the bombardment of constant scrutiny thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. Of course, we sign ourselves up for some of that scrutiny, but some of it isn’t. Thanks to social media, there’s now a new form of bullying and one mistake on social media can become a virtual shaming session. More and more, we have conditioned ourselves to show a “perfect” version of ourselves to the public. In a way, we’ve reverted back to the 1950s Man in the Flannel Suit days, except we do all our posturing online.

With all this burden and alienation, it’s no wonder Gen Yers feel exhausted and depressed.  Sure, it’s extreme when Elliot breaks down in his apartment, but his angst is is something I think a lot of Gen Yers have felt on a much smaller scale. It’s something I know I’ve felt many times before. It’s hard being yourself when you’re busy trying to be perfect for strangers on the internet. It’s difficult finding your way when you’re supposed to be a part of the generation that does big things, a generation that’s also unfairly saddled with the stereotype of being “do-nothings.” It’s annoying when you realize that some of the stuff you love, like TV, social media, etc., is actually stuff that numbs you from life and in, many ways, makes existing problems worse.

The solution, of taking down a corporation that feeds on people’s money and time, is something that can work on a TV show, but one wonders what kind of solution will occur in the real world. I don’t think it’ll be something as grandiose as taking down the biggest corporation in the world, but I hope that all people, not just Gen Yers, decide to take matters into their own hands and do the little they can to challenge The Man.

Rami Malek as Elliot in a behind-the-scenes shot of Mr. Robot. Credit: USA (from Mr. Robot Facebook page)