Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail knows good TV: His USA hacker-thriller is an Emmy-winning hit and one of TV's few big watercooler-conversation starters; it's turned its lead Rami Malek into a bona fide star and made the 39-year-old showrunner a major player. So when it came time to solicit opinions for our 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time list, Esmail was naturally one of the first voters we reached out to. We asked the writer-director about his ballot, his top choices and what makes a near-perfect television series.
You put Breaking Bad as the best TV show of all time. Why?
Wow. That's a tough question. Well, the biggest thing about Breaking Bad is that for me, it broke the mold of television. It wasn't procedural in any way, shape or form — even the serialized shows tend to sort of be seasonally procedural. There's essentially a reboot, there would be a new mission. Breaking Bad didn't even do that. They told this singular story from beginning to end in five seasons. I thought it was pretty revolutionary.
What's your favorite moment from that series?
There are so many great episodes. I'm trying to remember the name of it ... I always screw it up. It's the bottle episode where Jesse and Walt are stranded out in the desert because the Winnebago broke down. [Editor's note: It's "4 Days Out," from Season Two.] I love those episodes where little-to-no plot happens but there's this real nice, deep exploration of a relationship. Breaking Bad did that a lot, where Walt was cooking only half the time even though the show was about him being a meth cook. It was really more about this relationship between him and Jesse, and him and his family. And then there's obviously the famous one – I think it's called "Fly" – where they're stuck in the lab and it's just a two-hander for the entire hour. That's when Breaking Bad really came alive for me.
What do you look for in great TV?
The first thing I look for is a great story. It's funny, because I just got done saying that I find that plot is really an excuse to explore character. But when it comes to a story - a great story - it allows the narrative to become significant without the audience noticing. All of a sudden, the audience is wrapped up with these characters and their lives and doesn't care about the next plot turn or twist. You're not looking at the machinations; you're more interested in these people, really experiencing what they're experiencing and going through what they're going through. The story becomes subliminal. And in movies, that's impossible. You have to get through the story within two hours, so it's going to be more apparent what the plot is in a film. Whereas with television, you can take your time and it can be a lot more divisible. So that, to me, is what great TV is.
There are two polar opposites in television. There are the television shows that feel like they burn through stories and the audience completely feels it, enough for a point. And then there's the flip side where not much ever happens and the audience feels that, too. They feel the same formula happening every episode. But then there's that sweet spot in the middle where you get that nice balance – and it really can only be accomplished if you use longform storytelling. It's just something that's completely unique that you really can't find in any other medium.
And then your number two pick was Seinfeld.
So this goes back to personally not being a fan of seeing the same thing over and over ... and sitcoms did that a lot. I mean, by definition, that was the formula to it. You knew all the characters, you knew the situation, they got into trouble, and then they'd get out by the end and that was that. Seinfeld was the first sitcom I remember watching – to be honest with you, the first television show that I remembered watching – that really subverted the formula. It went left when you expected it to go right. And the fact that they did it in the format of a sitcom, which felt more regimented than hour-long procedurals, was just that much more remarkable. It was so subversive, so twisted and yet so inventive. They broke all these rules and barriers and produced something completely entertaining and interesting and challenging. I kind of give them more credit than anyone else because, especially at that time, it was a very limited format.
What's your favorite Seinfeld moment?
For me, it has to be "The Opposite." I'm a huge fan of magical realism – Groundhog Day is one of my favorite films. I love the sort of stories where there are emotional benders. They're not really mind-benders, because it's not about the magic or the sci-fi of it all or whatever. It's really just about this kind of detour ... the sort of twist in the world. It's really about what the character's going through. "The Opposite" was genius because it's such a simple, eloquent thing. It reminded me of all those movies – they don't make them anymore – but all those movies like Groundhog Day, where it was succinct, to the point. It's like an awesome, high-concept 23-minute short film that is so funny and so ingenious.