Mic Drop: Revealing Character Through Karaoke on ‘Mr. Robot’ and ‘You’re the Worst’

Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss in Mr. Robot.

Portia Doubleday as Angela Moss in Mr. Robot.

Welcome to our TV Fashion column, where TV Ate My Wardrobe‘s Emma Fraser discusses the trends in television apparel. This week: Mr. Robot, Selfie and You’re the Worst break their characters down on the karaoke microphone. 

Laying yourself bare doesn’t always involve disrobing and the act of performing a song in public can be just as terrifying. Sadly not every show can have a musical episode and karaoke is often used to comment on the state of mind of a character and because it is a fun way to showcase singing talent without going full musical. In a recent episode of Mr. Robot, at the most depressing looking July 4th party, Angela takes to the microphone to sing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” In this moment everything Angela has been battling this season is laid out. It is a shame that hardly anyone is paying attention.

Angela’s spent a lot of time solo in bars of late and the battle to suppress emotion is one she has been failing to completely conquer all year. The words are there to suggest she doesn’t care or at least won’t let her feelings complicate things; she has the ice queen look down in her stunning white jacket, but her usually pulled back hair has been let loose just like Angela. Somehow Portia Doubleday manages to sound detached while also delivering raw emotion as her eyes go glassy with tears that never fall and this performance is the perfect embodiment of Angela’s struggle this season between logic and feelings. You can’t just shutdown the latter.

The title is of course incredibly on the nose and this karaoke rendition is intercut with the fSociety gang trying to find some dirt on their hostage; everybody wants to rule the world and frankly none of them is having much success so far.

Perfect voices for karaoke are fine, but this isn’t The Voice and the ones that wobble and crack add to the vulnerability. This is evident in Doubleday’s Mr. Robot performance and the tight shot of Angela is another factor which adds to the intimacy and raw sound of this rendition; we are forced to view Angela up close and it is near impossible to detach when there is nothing else in the frame to focus on. The same can be said for Justin Theroux as Kevin Garvey in the season 2 finale of The Leftovers as he sings for his life in a bizarre other world set up. The hotel limbo he finds himself in is one he has already escaped in the fantastic episode “International Assassin” and now he is has found himself back in the same tub, stark naked crawling out as if he has been reborn.

It is a test and part of it comes from what outfit he picks from the sparse closet as a towel is sadly not going to cut it and grey sweat pants are not even an option. Bypassing the GQMF black suit from his last visit, Kevin picks his old police chief garb and there is a sense of reclaiming his identity and power in this choice. One way to feel almost as vulnerable as wearing nothing other than a towel is to sing a song in front of strangers who may or may not be in some form of purgatory.

Kevin spins the wheel and gets “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel; another song full of personal symbolism for this character and his situation. What follows is a rendition that goes full gut punch as Kevin wears his desperation to get home for all to see; spilling emotion all over the stage with a cracked voice and snot dripping from his nose. Theroux is gifted in many ways (acting/writing/looks) and there is something humanizing to both his character and performance about his less than perfect pitch. As with Angela on Mr. Robot the camera goes in tight on Kevin as he sings and this further adds to how exposed this character is on an emotional level.

Switching things up from life saving karaoke to booze fuelled renditions soaked in the pain of rejection. This is perhaps are more likely scenario than Kevin’s and drunk singing is a staple of many a relationship show or movie. Much like the symbolic song choice for a character this could feel like a really tired trope if done with little imagination, but both You’re the Worst and Selfie give a master class in how to use karaoke as a means to address matters of the heart.

Both the season one and two finales of You’re the Worst have seen Lindsay take the microphone after a disastrous trash juice fuelled party at her sister Becca’s house. Singing Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” with smoky eyes gone smudgy, Lindsay steps out of the shame of a very public divorce request and Kether Donohue lays down an incredible performance to the few revelers who remain. The only person paying attention is Edgar who is quickly falling for Lindsay despite the messiness that has come before. A great song for a season finale montage is important and this one plays out as things literally burn down and rash relationship decisions get made; everything is wonderful and terrible.

The messiness is just as pronounced at the end of season 2 and Lindsay’s ex Paul kicks off the karaoke in the wasteland of another Becca party disaster. Lindsay is pregnant with Paul’s baby and Paul’s girlfriend responds to this news with a violent outburst resulting in broken glasses and deep neck scratches. Scrolling through the list of songs Paul settles on Bette Midler’s “Don’t Know Much” with Lindsay entering during the second verse like a surprise guest at a concert *cue loud applause* with not a mascara smear in sight. It is a beautiful reunion through song and while this happiness is short lived; during this duet they are very much in sync. Maybe Paul should’ve stuck with music and not cooking for their couples activity if the season 3 premiere is anything to go by.

It would be remiss if I was going to talk karaoke on TV and not mention the performance that I watch on YouTube about once a month from the short lived and fantastic Selfie; Karen Gillan delivering a heartbreaking version of “Chandelier” by Sia. I’m still very sad we didn’t get to see more of where the love story between Eliza and Henry was headed as things were just heating up at the time of cancellation. After Eliza declares her feelings by baring body and soul, Henry rejects this advance and Eliza exposes herself in an entirely different but significant fashion.

Eliza lives for the perfect Instagram worthy outfit so it is a big deal when she turns up to a work party in the clothes she normally does the laundry in. Her voiceover notes this is the “first time in forever I wasn’t thinking about what I looked like” and Henry should’ve realized what a big deal gesture this is. Instead he lets doubt creep in and accuses her of sabotaging her other relationship because she is scared to commit. Oh, Henry.

A whole lot of drinks later and when Eliza takes the mic she is drunk and sad with the words from “Chandelier” turning into a devastating description of how she thinks she is viewed. Transitioning from Karen Gillan’s stunning performance into the Sia version we get up close and personal with Eliza’s trying to fake her way through the night with booze, burgers and bad decisions. I’ve never sang sad karaoke – fun fact I have only done karaoke once way back in 1999 – but a lot of the rest of this montage is incredibly relatable.

Revelatory moments through karaoke can be shorthand for unburdening the soul in both comedy and drama. The reasons for performing can vary, but what all four of these shows that I have discussed demonstrate is no matter whether you are singing because of rejection or to save your life this is another creative way to show character motivation. Costuming, hair and makeup also plays a significant role here and whether it is makeup smears, undoing that ponytail, picking an old uniform or wearing clothes that don’t normally leave the house this further adds to the emotional significance of that signature karaoke song choice.

Emma Fraser is the creator of TV Ate My Wardrobe and spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion and costuming; Abbi and Ilana’s Broad City style, the wigs on The Americans and Mindy Lahiri’s pajamas are just as vital as talking about ’90s, ’00s teen shows. Emma has a MA in film and television, and she probably holds Angela Chase responsible for this path. You can find her on Twitter @frazbelina.