Critic's Notebook: The Summer of Ryan Lochte and 'Mr. Robot' Letdowns

Ryan Lochte Rami Malek Split - Publicity - H 2016
Getty Images; USA Network

Congratulations to Rio. After months of fear that the Summer Olympics would be upstaged by nefarious mosquitos, aquatic feces and pervasive crime, the Games themselves turned out to be a relatively staid affair dominated by Americans and Usain Bolt, at least according to what NBC decided to show domestic audiences.

We're sorry about Ryan Lochte.

Somehow, in the four years since London, we forgot the only two important things about Ryan Lochte. One is that he was/is a great swimmer. In an era without Michael Phelps, we'd be talking about Lochte as the best American swimmer of his generation as opposed to as a particularly buoyant Ken doll whose head was left in bleach too long.

Somehow we also forgot that Ryan Lochte's dumbness went beyond being just a "Jeah!"-spouting E! himbo. We forgot about the specificity of the dumbness and the racist sister and all of the reasons why we talked about Ryan Lochte for a few months in 2012, but nobody mentioned him between 2013 and early 2016.

That's not to say that when Lochte and his boyz came forward with their outlandish stories of being robbed at gunpoint, we should have disbelieved him. It's correct and instinctual to trust victims and Lochte's initial story played perfectly into the paranoid narrative the media arrived in Rio with. That's also why the eventual and fairly speedy revelation that Lochte and company were at least partly prevaricating was so damaging and why it shouldn't be tossed aside with casual "Boys will be boys" allowances. First off, Ryan Lochte is 32 and granting him "Boys will be boys" immunity ignores the literally thousands of younger athletes who went to Rio and didn't transition from medalists to fabulists as the Olympiad progressed. But also, Lochte's specific lie played into the worst of the Rio citizenry's self-doubts. Zika and poo-water were out of Rio's hands after a certain point, but crime and corruption were the black marks the city was hoping to avoid. And just as the revelation of Lochte's lie exposed him as the ugliest of ugly Americas, the lie seemingly exposed the Rio that Rio didn't want to be. 

Of course, when Lochte's lie was exposed, all of the worst interview footage from 2012 resurfaced on YouTube and the collective response was whatever the opposite of shock is. Resignation? Muted disappointment? "Well duh" acceptance?

Nobody was surprised, because it fit exactly the profile of Ryan Lochte that we should have anticipated, but we spent days talking about it, or at least NBC did. I'd like to believe that in other parts of the world, disinterest was rampant, because Lochte wasn't as good as he was in Olympics past and this was a mighty anticlimactic twist.

Either way, I was left feeling more frustrated at myself for my own expectations or lack of expectations than at him, because Ryan Lochte's just Ryan Lochte and if we never talk about him again, that would be fine.

From America's Mr. Plastic, that brings me to USA's Mr. Robot.

The acclaimed Emmy nominated and TCA Award-winning drama passed the midway point in its second season last week with an episode that culminated in the revelation of a twist that, in Lochte-esque fashion, we should have seen coming or we did see coming. When it was finally unveiled, it wasn't especially satisfying because all of our expectations had been set up for it and yet it was presented as some grand reveal.

[Obviously Mr. Robot spoilers will follow, but my point is that they're not spoilers for much and that's frustrating.]

I didn't predict that Elliot has been in prison for the entirety of the second Mr. Robot season. I've been told Reddit commenters did, but I don't personally find Mr. Robot compelling enough to justify secondary post-episode analysis, though I know that many viewers obviously do. I accepted early on in the first season, when I absolutely predicted the season's big twist (just as everybody did, lest you think I'm trying to over-praise my viewing skills here), that I'm not grooving on the show in the same way that many of my critical colleagues are and in the same way that some viewers are. (Let me rephrase that: I think the majority of Mr. Robot viewers are grooving on the show in a deeply engaged way, one that I am not, but viewership for Mr. Robot is miniscule.)

What I did predict, what I assume every Mr. Robot viewer predicted, was that whatever Elliot was telling us about living with his mother and trying to combat his delusional interactions with his imaginary father and hobnobbing with Alf and everything else was false or distorted in ways ranging between mostly and entirely. My problem with the climax of the last episode revealing that Elliot was in jail — and all of his interactions this season have been with fellow prisoners, including Seinfeld-Loving Guy and Justifiably Proud of His Drama Chops Craig Robinson — is that it treated the reveal as a surprise, something that it needed to explain to us in Keyser Soze twist fashion. You only get to do the same twist a certain number of times, and I think that number of times is even lower when you're not effectively fooling people. So between the Darlene's-his-sister twist and the Christian Slater-is-imaginary twist and the Elliot-is-in-jail twist, Mr. Robot has done the same twist, delivered in the same episode-ending, allegedly jaw-dropping fashion too many times for my taste. Mr. Robot is a smart show, but it's too enamored of its own cleverness.

Why would Ryan Lochte think he could get away with his subterfuge when we already knew his IQ was questionable?

Was there something charming about Ryan Lochte's unreliable narration of his life when it was just banal interviews and vapid E! idiocy? In that context, he fit perfectly into a tradition of beautiful, famous people cable has championed as long as their hollowness was exposed only through ignorance about tuna. Might Lochte have felt sufficiently enabled that he didn't realize that his persona might transition from lovably hollow to outrageous and worthy of contempt when it detoured into the realm of the fraudulent? We didn't want to be able to predict this twist in the story, because Lochte's inarticulateness seemed innocuous and his deviations from the truth felt within our expectations. Because we didn't predict this evolution, we then felt betrayed when we didn't. Certainly nobody's ordering a new What Would Ryan Lochte Do? season now, and it's going to be a while before it's even kosher to put Lochte on Dancing With the Stars.

And why does Mr. Robot think it can get away with its subterfuge when we already knew its narrator was unreliable?

Lochte is a disappointment because he betrayed our passive acceptance of his limitations, but Mr. Robot and its twist were disappointing because they betrayed our active engagement. As a show, Mr. Robot wants us to guess and predict and be as smart, in our own ways, as its characters. It's a show that wants those weekly recaps and those Reddit threads. But by inviting that level of engagement and repeating Elliot's lack of reliability throughout the first season, it trained us to anticipate, and that training led to disappointment.

We trusted in the childlike simplicity of Ryan Lochte and the cleverness of Mr. Robot, and both let us down. 

I think there was some hope from creator Sam Esmail that viewers would think that Elliot's relationship with his absent father was an isolated thing. But the reason so many viewers figured out that twist — other than that we'd seen Fight Club — was the sense that we were always supposed to think that Elliot's grasp on reality was tenuous, or at least that we were being steered through Elliot's reality by a person whose narrative motivations were questionable. The relationship between voiceover Elliot and the viewer/listener has always been one of distrust and even outright antagonism, and the show's narrative POV has always sympathized with Elliot, rather than the audience. It's part of what makes the show, at its best, fascinating and part of what gives Rami Malek, the reason I'm not going to stop watching the show, so much to play. But how many times can it yield similar "Gotcha!" reversals of expectations before it becomes uninteresting and unexciting to wade through episodes unimpeded by sensible time restrictions just to get to what we know is inevitable?

I've already had a hard time engaging with this season because of the necessity of having Elliot off in his own recuperative/rehabilitative/incarcerated world and leaving the other characters to carry much more of the story than they were asked to last year. For me, it's too much time outside of Elliot's perspective and too much time in a chilly, eerily framed reality that lacks a clear perspective separate from his. I like watching Carly Chaikin give people attitude and testing the basic cable limits for swearing, but I don't really know or care what Darlene is doing as a stand-alone character at this point. I've been fleetingly engaged in what Grace Gummer's Dom has been doing this season, but if you told me that she was actually a figment of a different character's imagination, I wouldn't be surprised or excited by that prospect. I raise my eyebrows at whatever Joanna Wellick is up to, and I admire Stephanie Corneliussen's oddball blend of maternal, kinky and icy, but if Joanna vanished I don't think I would ever pause and go, "Yo, whatever happened to Joanna?" This is all the cost of being as monomaniacal as Mr. Robot was in its first season. I haven't even found a way to warm to or root for Portia Doubleday's Angela and I know there's a viewer subset that loves her. Often, I find myself watching episodes waiting for a few moments of B.D. Wong or Michael Cristofer or Brian Stokes Mitchell wondering if that's enough.

Even though the other characters on the show are taking up more and more screen time — and Esmail and company are being given apparently infinite screen time by USA — it's still Elliot's show. And I still don't believe anything he tells me, and the show still keeps expecting me to be amazed when the things he says are lies, and that ends up frustrating, not amazing me.

I used to say that all I wanted from Mr. Robot was an episode in which Elliot, in his mopey perambulations around New York City, accidentally wandered into the shooting for an episode of Billy on the Street and Billy Eichner spent 10 minutes shouting at him about pop culture. But now, somewhat in the style of the recent '80s sitcom-inflected Mr. Robot episode, I want a Sam Esmail-directed episode of What Would Ryan Lochte Do? in which the twist was that Ryan Lochte, despite narrating the series, never existed and was always the Mr. Robot to Michael Phelps' Elliot.

Admit it, you wouldn't be surprised.