The new USA series Mr. Robot bears surface similarities to a number of other shows, but in the end it’s a unique standout that slots comfortably into television’s new Golden Age. Full of disturbing themes, scathing politics, and unforgettable intensity, this is a show born of the angry class warfare zeitgeist, the same fed-up attitude that’s produced so much fervent enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders and (somehow) Donald Trump. If there’s a show that serves as a more relevant fictional time capsule of its era, I don’t know what it is.
By turns calmly mesmerizing and wrenchingly intense, Rami Malek stars as Elliot Alderson, by day a mild-mannered computer engineer for IT security firm Allsafe, but by night, a hacker vigilante. Troubled by social anxiety, drug addiction, and a traumatic past, Elliot’s a brilliant misanthrope who is disgusted with the status quo. Allsafe’s primary client is the massive E Corp, the world’s most powerful conglomerate, with fingers in so many financial pies that they control the debt of millions. Elliot’s position and specific genius make him the perfect target for recruitment by an Anonymous-style hacker collective called “fsociety,” led by an enigmatic man known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). fsociety’s goal: change the world, by obliterating “Evil Corp.” But even as he’s joining fsociety, Elliot is finding his way onto the radar of an up-and-coming executive E Corp insider, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), who further embroils him in a secret tug of war between visionary street revolutionaries and the mighty, capitalist Powers-That-Be.
Mr. Robot is not flawless television, but it’s my favorite new show to debut in years. It hits the ground running with a pilot that’s at once fierce, timely, and riveting. Thankfully, it never looks back, avoiding USA’s tendency toward comfortable episodic formula in favor of deftly escalating serial. Series creator Sam Esmail clearly went into the project with a solid roadmap for the season, and while I’d have to watch it through again to see if its structural nuts and bolts hold up solidly, I’m confident I would overlook it if they didn’t, in light of the assured vision and masterful production values. There’s a dark, gritty beauty to its shot composition that rivals, if not exceeds, the sadly overlooked Rubicon—a show that similarly resurrects the paranoid seventies conspiracy thriller for the modern era. The post-production sound editing and musical direction is brilliant, greatly enhancing the show’s spine-tingling ambience, while Malek’s creepy monotone narration immersively integrates the viewer as Elliot’s “imaginary friend.” The result is engrossing and intense, as best exemplified perhaps in the fourth episode, “eps1.3da3m0ns.mp4,” a hackle-raising mindfuck on a par with Twin Peaks at its most disturbing. Mr. Robot‘s politics, while shrill, also lend its treacherous science fictional Good-versus-Evil battlefield a large dose of brutal, topical relevance.
Yes, some of Mr. Robot‘s plot twists will fail to surprise seasoned viewers, a problem Esmail cagily mitigates by anticipating the viewer’s reactions and subverting them. More problematic are certain casting decisions: as Elliot’s childhood friend Angela, Portia Doubleday is a little too baby-faced to convince as a resourceful junior executive, while Carly Chaikin’s loose cannon hacker compatriot Darlene runs to the annoying side. Fortunately, there’s solid support elsewhere: Bruce Altman and Michael Cristofer are shrewdly cast and particularly effective in showy villain roles, while Michael Gill and Gloria Reuben make for sympathetic allies, caught in the crossfire of Elliot’s anarchic behavior. I was also rather fond of fsociety’s supporting members Romero (Ron Cephas Jones), Mobley (Azhar Khan), and Trenton (Sunita Mani). In the end, though, the show belongs to Malek, and he carries the day. He’s utterly compelling as the unhinged Robin Hood hacker, descending into a madness that’s part cyberpunk dystopia, part Dickian reality warp.
USA liked what it saw enough in Mr. Robot enough to renew it before the pilot had even debuted, a sign of good faith from the network that the show more than rewards with an assured freshman year. Matching that success will be difficult in the future; it faces story-telling challenges similar to Orphan Black, which stumbled after its dynamite first season. Hopefully, Mr. Robot is more up to the task, because I’m deeply invested and anxious to see where it takes its chilling, alternate near-future narrative next.