USA Network’s Mr. Robot (Wednesdays, 10/9C) is, to quote the network’s blurb, ‘a techno thriller that follows Elliot, a young programmer, who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and as a vigilante hacker by night. Elliot finds himself at a crossroad when the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect. Compelled by his personal beliefs, Elliot struggles to resist the chance to take down the multinational CEOs he believes are running (and ruining) the world.’
As all blurbs are, this one is a simplification – for one thing, Elliot is substantially more than merely a cyber-security tech/vigilante. He is both a troubled soul – possibly at the highly functional end of the autism spectrum – who is almost clinically aware of his flaws. As such, he is one of the most relateable protagonists on TV right now.
Elliot works for a company that provide cyber-security for corporations – primarily E-Corp, an omnipresent conglomerate (they even make the computers that Elliot’s employer uses) with a company log that looks for all the world like the Enron logo. Even if everyone didn’t refer to them as Evil Corp, we’d be able to tell they’re not the good guys here.
To balance out a job he hates (but is really, really good at), Elliot moonlights as a cyber-vigilante – the teaser shows him confront a man who owns a small chain of coffee shops about his less public activities. In minutes he establishes his ideals and totally destroys his target. He is completely aware of the irony that he does it in person because he needs to work on his people skills.
When Evil Corp is hit by a particularly cyber-attack, Elliot saves the day but finds himself on the horns of a peculiar dilemma – one which leads to his being approached by a grungy looking individual who could be mistaken for a homeless bum (Christian Slater) who wears a nearly worn out jacket with a ‘Mr. Robot Computer sales and repairs’ jacket. Eventually, he learns what Mr. Robot wants with/from him and it’s something spectacular. It also reminds of Tyler Durden’s rants in Fight Club (one of the show’s producing entities is Anonymous Content – where David Fincher learned his craft) – a connection I wouldn’t have made a week ago, but I recently re-watched Fight Club, so…
So that’s the big overview of what Mr. Robot is about.
What makes it work is the characters – Elliot’s childhood friend and co-worker, Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday); his twitchy boss, Gideon (Michel Gill), who finds him easy to talk to, and Mr. Robot, simultaneously laid back and on edge and charmingly direct (except when he’s not) – and situations, all filtered through Elliot – whose narration is himself talking to an imaginary person (which is us).
Elliot is, of course, the centerpiece to the series – he hates his job but is extremely good at it; he sees a therapist, Kristen (Gloria Reubens), whom he respects for caring enough to try, even though he seldom follows her instructions; he kind of keeps a cyber-eye on the men in Angela and Kristal’s lives and will take action to protect them from bad situations even as he recognizes on some level that what he’s doing amounts to stalking.
He loves the puzzles he’s confronted by in his job – referring to a cyber-attack on Evil Corp as ‘awesome’ because of its excellence – even though he has to solve them for clients he detests.
Watching him interact with Angela’s boyfriend is an exercise in suppression of loathing and frustration – though he finds the man (Ben Rappaport) less objectionable than her usual choices in men); watching him squirm as Gideon confides in him – even as Gideon is telling him how easy he is to talk to – is almost delightfully wicked.
Then there’s Elliot’s dealer, Shayla (Frances Shaw) – he takes about 30 milligrams of morphine a day (just enough to take the edge off; not enough to become addicted, or so he says), with whom he occasionally has sex…
In terms of active antagonists – Evil Corp not being a person except, maybe for legal purposes – there’s the company’s Vice-President of Technology, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), whom we meet briefly but who has a couple of very key moments in the premiere. In less time than it takes to tell, Wallström gives Wellick a surface charm and a just-below-the-surface oily slickness – like a snake oil salesman. He is almost immediately fascinatingly repellant.
Malek is a perfect fit for Elliot. His eyes shift from slightly too large when he’s excited or worried, to near slits when he’s angry or threatened. His Elliot seems to avoid eye contact as much as possible and, in a lot of shows, his behavior would be classed as furtive. His narration could get old, but doesn’t – because he’s more open to his imaginary friend (us) than he could ever be with any of the people who populate his world (and he both aware of both the uniqueness of this situation and the irony of it – though he never comes right out and says so).
The premiere, hellofriend.mov, was written by series creator Sam Esmail, who finds easy targets in conglomerates, overbearing credit and the arrogance of the 1% of the 1% but builds complex layers in both his characters and situations.
Niels Arden Oplev – who directed the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – maintains a deliberate pace pretty much throughout (except for a few scenes that need a bit more quickness). He has enough time to spend a significant amount on characters – especially Elliot – and uses a counter-intuitive, coolly propulsive electronic score (and, of all things, Neil Diamond’s cover of Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away) to create tension and emphasis for key sequences.
When you put it all together, the result is a fascinating, unique cyber-thriller that firmly dislodges USA Network from its former blue sky status. It’s a bit grim, but not without wit; dramatic but not without humor.
Final Grade: A