I’ll be honest: I haven’t watched a USA series regularly since the heyday of Burn Notice (still love ya, Jeffrey Donovan and Bruce Campbell!). Royal Pains? Cute, but not addictive. Suits? Never im-press-ed me. Until now, USA was the place to go for sunny summer hour-long happy-snooze programming — a useful function, to be sure, but…
But now, holy cow. I would not think of missing an episode of either Mr. Robot or Playing House. Robot, which offers the penultimate episode of its first season on Wednesday night, is one of the most original and unpredictable shows on television — on any channel, via any TV delivery-system. Sam Esmail, Robot auteur, has created a marvelously enigmatic character in Elliot Alderson, and Rami Malek is inhabiting Elliot in one of the most arresting performances any actor is giving on TV.
Mr. Robot is surprising in every aspect. The plot is constantly taking twists that cannot be foreseen. (To cite just the most pressing issue: Is Christian Slater really Elliot’s father? His stepfather? His inner-turmoil imaginary creation?) You can’t even predict when Mr. Robot will cut to a commercial: The show is so imaginatively shot and edited, it keeps you glued to whatever screen you’re watching it on, which must be a boon to USA’s advertisers, who might have thought sponsoring a show as off-kilter as this was a risk.
Now, contrast this with Playing House. This deceptively tidy little half-hour was created by stars Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. Steeped in improv comedy, the duo have quickly become cult favorites for an audience that craves strong female friendships on TV. And House distinguishes itself from other gal-pal shows in that it’s not a women-under-duress series or a female-led genre show (like, say, TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles) but rather a half-hour consisting of two women talking, being friends, nestled into a sitcom context. But it’s really their clever chatter and their bond that we’re responding to.
These two characters live in a Connecticut town that’s like an updated version of Gilmore Girls’s Stars Hollow, except populated by crazier people including Keegan-Michael Key as a cop with a romantic past with St. Clair’s Emma, Jack McBrayer as a gossipy UPS-like delivery man, and Veep’s Matt Walsh as the sweetly scheming boss at Rosie’s Café, where the gals satiate their waffle addiction.
At a recent Television Critics Association press session, Parham and St. Clair said they were startled by the immediate intensity of the fan basethey had inspired (some of the most devoted call themselves “Jammers”). After realizing that Parham and St. Clair were assiduously responding to tweets and Facebook posts, fans have deluged the duo with details from their lives. Parham and St. Clair oblige further by making even their sponsor ads, for Xfinity and Samsung, into mini-House episodes.
For a show that doesn’t have spectacular ratings — that, like Mr. Robot, doesn’t really have compatible lead-in and lead-out programming on USA — Playing House has demonstrated that, in the social-media universe and the ever-increasing sophistication of the audience, people find the good stuff and support it.
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA; Playing House airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on USA.