TV keeps making ostentatious plays for regaining live viewership (and, as a result, getting live eyeballs on ads). We’re never seen anything like this week, though, when USA’s “Mr. Robot” exploded the idea of what you can do with in-show advertising, and truly rewarded those who tuned in live.
Earlier in the day, creator Sam Esmail had tweeted out a warning that of all the episodes of “Mr. Robot” that have aired recently:
To our streaming viewers, you should watch tonight’s episode of #MrRobot live with the commercials. Trust me on this.
— Sam Esmail (@samesmail) August 10, 2016
In this age of DVRing, it was a pretty big request (especially when you consider that “Mr. Robot” starts at 10pm and episodes often run over an hour). But once the episode began, Esmail’s reasons were clear.
Last week’s episode ended with Elliot (Rami Malek) experiencing a brutal beating at the hands of Ray’s (Craig Robinson) hired goons… and in classic “Mr. Robot” tradition, this week’s episode threw us for a loop. Beginning with a 1990-era USA Network bumper and a bold “Word Up Wednesday” spot, the opening moments proved to be the perfect segue to the first two acts of “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes.”
Elliot finds himself in a “Full House”-style family sitcom, complete with Dad (Christian Slater), Mom (Vaishnavi Sharma) and sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin). Oh, and of course, cheesy sitcom banter, period-accurate letterboxing, a vintage USA station logo and a laugh track. Plus a theme song written by Bennett Salvay and Jesse Frederick (whose credits include the songs for “Perfect Strangers,” “Full House” and “Family Matters”), and a guest appearance by Alf!
As a critic, the way in which Esmail depicted Elliot’s altered mental state was a delight to discover Wednesday morning, when we received screeners. However, it was those who watched live on Wednesday night who got the real treat.
After the end of the first act of the show, a more conventional drama might have begun airing a standard set of ads, breaking the illusion created by the show’s extreme commitment to this new 90s mise-en-place. Fortunately, “Mr. Robot” didn’t have to do that. Instead, USA cut to commercial, but those commercials were as follows:
- A faux vintage E-Corp commercial for home internet.
- An actual vintage 1990 Bud Light ad.
- “Tonight on USA’s ‘Up All Night’ — ‘The Casual Massacre of the Bourgeois” (with footage from the fake horror film introduced two weeks ago).
- A second commercial for E-Corp goods and services.
An NBCUniversal representative confirmed that Esmail went directly to USA president Chris McCumber with the idea to keep the act break authentic to the episode scenario. In addition, the Bud Light ad was in fact paid for by Budweiser.
Afterwards, we were returned to Elliot’s altered state of being, which didn’t end for another several minutes. After the second act break, “Mr. Robot” returned to the (relatively) real world, but the impact of those first approximately 20 minutes cannot be understated.
Most importantly, the screeners provided to critics Wednesday morning included the second commercial for E-Corp, but not the full block of ads. Only those who watched live (or recorded the initial airing on their DVRs) got to experience those commercials — the version of the episode hosted on the USA site does include the same ad screened for critics, which eases you back into the year 1990. But the 120 seconds of ads which precede it are all modern-era.
You can watch all of the commercials via USA’s “Mr. Robot” blog here, but they can’t recapture the moment when the show cut to commercial but maintained its break with reality. It’s a shame that this initial airing was one that many might never experience, but that almost adds to the magic. For those who think “Mr. Robot” is experiencing a sophomore slump, “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes” was an audacious response — and a reminder that sometimes, yes, it’s worth it to watch something live.
“Mr. Robot,” never forget, airs Wednesdays at 10pm on USA Network.