The absurdly entertaining hacker drama shows that USA can be more than cool guys in sunglasses.
What I’m about to tell you is top secret. There’s a powerful group of people out there that are secretly running the world. I’m talking about the guys no one knows about. They guys who are invisible. The top 1% of the top 1%. The guys that play God without permission. And now I think they’re following me.
So begins Mr. Robot, which I foolishly chose to ignore upon its debut for multiple reasons. In my defense, I wasn’t alone: for starters, it airs on USA, home of lightweight, disposable summer programming (or “blue skies and sunglasses,” as Grantland’s Andy Greenwald eloquently put it). I also don’t find hackers terribly interesting, or at least Hollywood’s version of them. Another red flag was Christian Slater in second billing, an actor who lately can’t seem to catch a break. Then there’s that goofy title, which immediately makes one think of Styx. I hate Styx.
As it turns out, those are bad reasons to avoid Mr. Robot, and by the time the pilot was over I was no longer thinking about any of them. The series may warrant comparisons to Fight Club (TV.com has cutely nicknamed it Byte Club), but Mr. Robot is undoubtedly the coolest show of the summer: stylish, intelligent, subversive, and coming entirely out of nowhere.
The plot is easy to summarize but impossible to fully explain: it centers on jittery, anti-social computer whiz Elliot (Rami Malek, the very definition of magnetic), who works at a New York data security firm by day but is a vigilante hacker at night. He’s also a deeply anxious morphine addict who, in darkly comic narration, deadpans against capitalist fatcats, social media, and humanity in general. But those things he keeps from his therapist; people just think he’s a little strange, including his childhood friend and co-worker Angela (Portia Doubleday, Youth in Revolt). He’s perpetually distant, wearing his black hoodie as armor; he gazes out at the world with dark-rimmed eyes as big as saucers like an alien in pale human skin. And he also might be going crazy, after being contacted by the titular, Morpheus-like Mr. Robot (Slater)… who may or may not be all in his head.
That Elliot gets himself wrapped up with a secret group called “FSociety” (naturally), with the driving mission to bring down a banking/insurance Goliath called E Corp (known colloquially as “Evil Corp”), is not a surprise. That’s your standard opening salvo when you want to “rid the world of debt.” What is surprising is how effectively creator Sam Esmail takes these well-worn elements and fashions them into something genuinely exciting and new. Mr. Robot began its life as a feature film script; it was suggested that it might be a better as a series, but even when USA bought in, Esmail stubbornly refused to compromise his vision one iota (unheard of for an untested showrunner). What we have here is a series with swagger, that knows exactly what it’s about, had its style on lockdown from the pilot, and is propelling itself forward in unpredictable ways. It teases you with a more forumulaic, USA-like structure in its first scene, then zags away from it. You almost never see this kind of confidence right out of the gate. And definitely not on USA.
Much of the credit goes to Rami Malek, giving the kind of high-wire can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance that should make him a star. He was instantly memorable in projects as varied as The Pacific, The Master, and Short Term 12, and here has the perfect vehicle for his unique, skittery charisma: Elliot is not a guy you’d want to get a coffee with (lest he share how much he knows of your browser history), but he’s the dark star everyone else orbits around. He’s exceptional at what he does but lives his life on a knife’s edge, measuring his morphine intake, calibrating a fake level of engagement for every social interaction, and secretly hacking the companies he’s paid to protect. And Malek, with those eyes and that voice (“like he’s got a mouthful of marbles,” says our Chase Branch), is mesmerizing in his stillness.
I’ll be honest: I don’t always understand what’s happening in the plot, and I think that’s okay if not actually by design. (Pity we can’t say the same of True Detective, whose journey into nonsense is no fun at all.) We view events through Elliot’s eyes, but he’s an unreliable narrator; his monologues address the audience, but he also says we “aren’t real.” His perspective is so warped we actually see E Corp read as “Evil Corp” whenever it appears on a news ticker or the company letterhead. (That their logo is identical to Enron’s is a nice touch.) And then there’s the show’s biggest mystery: is Mr. Robot even real? Slater is fantastic as the hair-trigger hacktivist, but the show’s playing coy in how it uses him: does removing him from a scene change anything? Until last night’s episode, no one even directly “addressed” Slater but Elliot. The direction and framing keeps that, as they do so many other things, slyly ambiguous. (Whether I want Mr. Robot to be real or a Tyler Durden construct is another thing; there’s risk of falling into a pit of cliches either way, but I think Esmail is smart enough to navigate it.)
That chilly visual style — and that’s exactly what it is, style — is what makes Mr. Robot endlessly fascinating, and unlike anything else on television. Niels Arden Oplev (the original Danish Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) directed the pilot as if nothing we saw could be taken at face value, and that has continued as others (Nisha Ganatra, Esmail himself) pick up the mantle. I’ve rarely seen staging and composition that so clearly reflects a character’s everyday mental state — that’s much easier to pull off on the page than on the screen. (The fourth episode, where Elliot goes through withdrawal, is a smorgasbord.) Shots are framed with actors’ heads hovering on the edges, in bottom corners, keeping us off-balance. You know how we give Tom Hooper crap for that? Here, it actually has a purpose. It actually tells us something.
There’s more, from the way episodes are paced and play with time, to even how each week’s prologue artistically builds to the big MR. ROBOT title card — a level of detail and thoughtfulness that belies a more pedigreed show. (The title card thing is devilishly simple, like an 1980s paranoid thriller. It gets an appreciative chuckle from me every time. Last Man On Earth got this right, too.) And most importantly for its tech-savvy audience, it portrays “hacking” as more than just banging on keys, shouting gobbledegook while the camera cuts away to shots of glowing wires. Imagine that — actual realism in a show about computer techs. Between this and the throwback Halt and Catch Fire, it’s a golden age.
Whether the title character is real or not, Elliot is still surrounded by others who are very much flesh and blood (we think!): Frankie Shaw is low-key funny in the “drug dealer/possible love interest” role, and Michel Gill is just as good at playing watery gravy as he was on House of Cards (that’s a compliment!). But the most unusual by far is Swede Martin Wallström as Tyrell Welleck, an Evil Corp exec who seems to have left his humanity behind in his climb to the top. His journey plays as a direct counterpoint to Elliot’s, and as the two continue to cross paths the visuals hammer it home: Welleck, freshly pressed and picking his teeth with his latest victim, and Elliot, all furtive glances and single-word sentences.
Even after Elliot has a temporary “debug” in the third episode (where he pledges to see “every stupid Marvel movie”, heart things on Instagram, and drink Starbucks), he can’t keep his anarchic streak buried for long. And by making him our protagonist, and Mr. Robot and the abrasive Darlene (Carly Chaikin) his allies, Mr. Robot the series becomes truly subversive: not only is it staunchly anti-capitalist and indifferent towards drug use, its playfully bleak view of humanity means everyone is either a villain or a potential sucker with a weakness to be exploited. Often, both. Pity poor Bill, the hapless tour guide who gets demolished just so Elliot can access a different floor of an impregnable building.
It’s good to be reminded on occasion that network upfronts, trailers, and Comic-Con teasers aren’t the only barometers for a show’s success. Mr. Robot is a shock to the system not just on its own merits, but in how it burst into the zeitgeist with all those handicaps: an unknown writer, a little-known lead actor, a familiar premise, on an uninteresting network? And it’s not only great, but appointment viewing? Did we all just get hacked? If so, USA is happy about it: it’s already been renewed for a second season, and aims to be the network’s calling card for future development. If it can keep soaring, it will be one of the best shows on television. And if it falls, that’ll be pretty spectacular too.
(Please don’t fall. I <3 you, Mr. Robot.)