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‘Mr. Robot’ Is Ending, and Cable Audiences May Not See Another Show as Bold For a Long, Long Time

The departure of “Mr. Robot” from USA’s roster could indicate a shift in what networks are willing — or able — to take chances on bold series.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps3.1_undo.gz" Episode 302 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson -- (Photo by: Michael Parmelee/USA Network)

Michael Parmelee/USA Network

For those who have been following just how many projects “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail and star Rami Malek have taken on in recent years, Wednesday’s news that the fourth season will be “Robot’s” last isn’t that surprising. Esmail has always said he had a fixed ending for the show in mind, in part because the show was based on an original screenplay he chose to expand for the series; a show which stood out as one of the high points of TV’s recent boom in daring and groundbreaking storytelling

While Wednesday’s news was not a shock, as Esmail told IndieWire in an interview last fall the midpoint of Season 3 was the midpoint of his original story — which theoretically meant there were another two-and-a-half seasons left in his original concept. “That would add up to five seasons, right? That’s not bad,” he said at the time.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, in an official statement announcing the end of the show, Esmail said, “Since day one, I’ve been building toward one conclusion — and in breaking the next season of ‘Mr. Robot,’ I have decided that conclusion is finally here. Everyone on the creative team, including the amazing people at USA and UCP, didn’t want to say goodbye, but we ultimately have too much respect for Elliot’s journey to extend past its inevitable ending. Therefore, Season 4 will serve as the final chapter of the ‘Mr. Robot’ story.”

A USA representative was not able to officially comment on how many episodes Season 4 of the series would be, but “Mr. Robot’s” order has fluctuated in the past, from 10 episodes in Season 1 to 12 in Season 2 — Season 3 went down to 10 episodes again, but hopefully Season 4 will be as long as needed to finish the narrative.

MR. ROBOT -- "eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h" Episode 301 -- Pictured: (l-r) Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss, Christian Slater as Mr. Robot -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

When it premiered in 2015, “Mr. Robot” famously signified a shift on USA’s part away from the “blue sky” programming that made the cable channel a popular favorite, especially in off-cycle seasons like the summer and winter. Of course, these days the concept of “downtime” during a year of television is alien to the point of absurd — literally every week new shows launch across no shortage of channels and streaming services. There are ebbs and flows, to be sure: More shows than not still premiere in the fall, and the lead-up to the Emmys qualification dates in the spring is a busy time. But viewers are never lacking for new shows.

At the Television Critics Association press tour, it was this continuing surge of new series that led FX CEO John Landgraf to think that the era he once called “the golden age of television” was maybe actually the “gilded age” — the implication being that the many new programs might look shiny, but their overall quality is declining.

Landgraf was not-so-subtlely poking at extremely convenient streaming services like Netflix when he said, “I will reiterate that a television brand like FX, which aims to make every show we program good and worth watching, truly needs you, the critics, to help audiences navigate toward what’s best in television rather than simply the most convenient.”

John LandgrafFX Executive Session panel, TCA Summer Press Tour, Los Angeles, USA - 03 Aug 2018

John Landgraf

David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

But as the flood of shows continues to trend upward, should a downgrade in quality be expected? Before “Robot,” USA’s biggest Emmys player was the Tony Shalhoub-starring crime series “Monk,” which earned 18 nominations and 8 wins over the course of its run. But at the time, the comedy category was much less competitive. With two major wins in its first year, “Mr. Robot” established itself over the course of its first three seasons as exciting, meticulously made television; something of a very different sort for the network.

It wasn’t the only risk USA took in that span of time, launching a number of series that might technically have fit into genre boxes like sci-fi (“Colony”), western (“Damnation”), or surrealist drama (“Falling Water”). But unlike earlier shows, the network aimed for a higher pedigree, and yet many of these series failed to connect with critics, audiences, or both.

As of now, all of those shows and several others have been canceled; meanwhile, “Suits,” the last remaining survivor of the Blue Sky era, is pushing on for an eighth season, along with an upcoming spin-off starring Gina Torres entitled “Second City.”

SUITS -- "Right-Hand Man" Episode 801 -- Pictured: (l-r) Katherine Heigl as Samantha Wheeler, Dule Hill as Alex -- (Photo by: Ian Watson/USA Network)

Katherine Heigl and Dule Hill in “Suits.”

Ian Watson/USA Network

Also set to premiere soon is “The Purge” and the “Bourne” spin-off “Treadstone,” both built on pre-existing (and extremely popular) franchises. These new shows could become exciting hits for the network, but there’s an undeniable populist bent to USA’s immediate future, and no apparent heir to “Mr. Robot’s” legacy of challenging, groundbreaking storytelling.

The concept of the Big Bang — which started the existence of our universe as we know it — is built on the idea that at some point, the forces which created the explosion will lead to the Big Crunch, during which point those forces will reverse, and the universe will contract in on itself into nothingness.

“Mr. Robot” doesn’t necessarily mean the Big Crunch of TV is all that close to happening, on USA or elsewhere; in fact, Esmail has multiple new projects in development with them now, and “The Sinner” was a 2018 Emmys favorite which has successfully launched a follow-up season now currently airing.

But as more and more television gets made, it is worth keeping an eye on the forces which drive what gets greenlit and what doesn’t, if only to make sure that Landgraf’s concerns about gilt versus gold don’t pan out. There are lifetimes worth of TV shows to watch — but it’d be ideal if they were worth the hours of lives they consume.

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