It's easy to see why so many people are excited about Mr. Robot, the USA Network sleeper hit about a hacker who gets wrapped up in the seedy underbelly of an evil corporation. The sinister mood, its complex and engaging storylines, and an eerily emotional performance from actor Rami Malek help to frame this as one of the most compelling shows on the air.
Mr. Robot also uses a subtle device to enhance the distinctive storytelling: its title cards. The thick red type used to introduce each episode is instantly reminiscent of 1980s video games, and it helps center the tone of the show as something dark yet familiar. But the title cards also change from installment to installment; creator Sam Esmail intentionally sets the tone of each episode with a unique title card. That is, that red type never appears over the same shot; instead, the backgrounds have varied from a creepy, out of focus woman staring directly at the camera to a dead body in the street. Eventually, we even learned that the noteworthy lettering is incredibly meaningful for Malek's character.
"The title card has to glimpse the theme or heart of that episode while setting our story in motion in a captivating way."
The aesthetics of the show are important to creating the show's oppressive world. The grittiness of the office interiors are enhanced by the cropped, slightly off center framing; the dismal apartment where Malek spends most of his time often gets bathed in sunlight when he he has visitors. When Malek's character talks to his childhood best friend, their faces usually fill the whole frame, as if Esmail is using these moments of connection to pull the viewer in closer. He deploys these aesthetic moves in a way that allows the characters to stand out in unpredictable and exciting ways.
"Choosing that perfect opening image — it has to glimpse the theme or heart of that particular episode while setting our story in motion in a captivating way," Esmail once told an interviewer. "We spend a lot of time carefully thinking about it, and the process usually starts by distilling the essence of each episode. Once we do that, the image quite often pops out at us."
And the title cards add to the show's feeling of oppression and domination. "I love how a film opens," Esmail has said. "It's almost always the best part about a movie: The first images of whatever I'm about to watch fill me with awesome anticipation." The cinematic elements of the title cards infuse episode of Mr. Robot with that anticipatory vibe; though the storyline is linear, you never know where it might go from episode to episode.
Esmail also thinks a lot of TV shows mishandle the title sequences by making them boring and predictable. "Some of them are beyond impressive and do an amazing job of setting up the tone and world," he has said. "But they are typically the same every episode. After a while, I find myself skipping them because they usually don't give me any new information about the episode I'm about to watch. With Mr. Robot, I ultimately wanted absolute control every time we kick off a new episode."
Ultimately, Esmail's goal is to make an impactful statement," he told the interviewer. "That's what I want the opening titles to do. The mood and tone are ultimately going to be decided by the episode — but that title sequence needs to f*cking say it loud and clear up front."
Watch the new season of Mr. Robot on July 13 at 19/9 c, on USA Network.