Now that Mr. Robot is halfway through its second season, viewers have become adjusted to creator Sam Esmail’s unique, cinematic styling. Frames will be emptier. The soundtrack a bit quieter. But it’s safe to say that no one expected the visual left turn taken with “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes,” an hour that somehow manages to top last season’s morphine-withdrawal episode in terms of sheer insanity.
If you haven’t seen the most recent episode of Mr. Robot, you need to stop reading now…
…because we need to talk about the sitcom stuff. In an attempt to shield Elliot from Ray’s massive beatdown, Mr. Robot took his nicer, more chill alter ego to a TGIF-inspired bizarro world, complete with laugh track and a cameo from none other than the ’80s second most famous extraterrestrial, ALF.
But as creator, executive producer, and director Sam Esmail explains, the original seed for the idea came from a place of logic and research — with a little bit of crazy thrown in for good measure.
After last week’s revelation about the true nature of Ray and his business, Elliot was in the worst shape he has been in since going through withdrawal. As a coping mechanism — a happy place to hide Elliot’s consciousness away — Mr. Robot created the sitcom setting. “The notion was that we wanted Mr. Robot to actually show the good attributes of having an alter ego,” Esmail said. “Here’s the plus. You’ve seen the negative. You can’t get rid of me, even if you want to. You can’t control me, but here’s a huge plus of having me around.” And according to Esmail, this technique is born out of fact, as an experience of people suffering from dissociative identity disorder.
So the question for the writers became: What would Elliot’s safe space look like? For the answer, Esmail mined his own childhood memories of TGIF, ABC’s now-defunct programming block of Friday night sitcoms that included Perfect Strangers, Full House, and Family Matters. “I remember being envious of the families on those sitcoms because even if they had their minor conflict every week, they always resolved it,” Esmail said. “Everyone always loved each other. Life was a lot simpler. Every house looked totally nice, and you had everything you needed. So Elliot goes to that place.”
Conceiving of the scenario is one thing, but shooting is another. On top of directing every episode, Esmail had to quickly master the sitcom style. For guidance, he turned to Blair Breard, an executive producer on Horace and Pete, Louis C.K.’s play-like series that used a three-camera setup (and a recent favorite of Esmail’s as well). The Mr. Robot production team was able to put up a green screen and construct the exterior and interior of a fake-looking gas station easily enough and even used a sound mix more like a half-hour comedy. The question of believably sitcom-y performances was no guarantee. But the cast delivered.
“Honestly, I thought we were going to struggle a little with everyone’s performances because sitcom acting is very different,” Esmail said. “That’s a whole other talent and skill that those actors spend a lot of time refining. I have to say everybody really took to it well. We just had a lot of fun, especially Christian. Christian’s amazing at it.”
And then there’s ALF. For the shocking cameo, the original puppeteer and voice actor, Paul Fusco, reprised the role from the original series. But with a character as lived-in as ALF, it can be difficult to separate performer from performance. “ALF is amazing,” Esmail joked. “He’s a little insulting sometimes. He can be a little needy, but it’s all worth it for the great performance he delivers.”