A television show about computer hacking may sound dull (and very ’90s), but USA Network pulled out all the stops to bring the compelling new program Mr. Robot to our screens. And I thank them for it.
Similar to its cable brethren AMC and FX, USA is branching out from its typical programming to include thought-provoking, high-quality cable dramas. Of these new shows, Mr. Robot has quickly become not only the best show of the summer — it could also easily contend for best drama of the year.
Not just a silly title
Don’t let the somewhat silly title fool you. This is neither a program about a literal robot nor is it an interpretation of “Mr. Roboto” by Styx. It is, however, one of the most intense and thrilling viewing experiences you can have this summer.
Originally conceived as a film by creator Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot features beautiful cinematography and brilliant storytelling. The premise is relatively simple: A programmer working in New York is enlisted by an underground anarchist hacker group, called “fsociety,” to take down the largest corporation in America, E Corp. (There is even an fsociety website for further investigation.)
The hacker is Elliot Alderson (captivatingly played by Rami Malek), a young man who struggles with a multitude of mental problems. These issues range from social anxiety, depression, and paranoia (Elliot has a constant fear of men in black suits coming after him) to possibly schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder.
Fight Club homage
Our protagonist is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and we can never be sure if what we are viewing is reality. Fsociety is led by “Mr. Robot” (the often amusing Christian Slater), but there are multiple instances where his character appears to be a dissociated personality of Elliot, à la Tyler Durden in Fight Club. He is the aggressive id to Elliot’s more passive and withdrawn personality, and the other members of the hacker group (including annoying hipster Darlene, played by Carly Chaikin) seem to consider Elliot the leader of their movement — similar to how “Project Mayhem” does with Edward Norton’s character.
Aside from being an obvious homage to Fight Club, Mr. Robot pulls together strands of Memento and American Psycho as well. There is even some Shakespeare thrown in with a Macbethean executive at E Corp named Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his calculating wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen). Again, it is unclear how much of their story is reality, especially Elliot’s bizarre interactions with Tyrell, but their plotline does provide one of the most graphic gay sex scenes I have ever seen on basic cable. (Though I don’t recall any character talking about cleaning himself up after sex on HBO's Game of Thrones.)
Elliot’s imaginary friend
The stunning camerawork, direction, and narration work to enhance our confusion. Elliot speaks to the audience in voiceover as if we are his imaginary friends, and it is difficult to shake the suspicion that everything that comes out of his mouth — or out of his perception of reality — is fundamentally skewed and inaccurate. For example, in the wonderful pilot episode directed by Niels Arden Oplev (director of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Elliot tells us that he always hears “E Corp” as “Evil Corp,” so that is what we hear every time the corporation is mentioned — which it is, a lot.
The small details on this show demand rewinding, freeze-framing, and then rewatching to catch everything. Since the focus is on hacking, we get quick glimpses of code on computer screens, social media profiles, and email subject titles (some of which can be quite humorous). The episode in which Elliot, a drug addict who takes both morphine and Suboxone at the same time to stave off full-blown addiction, goes through withdrawal includes some Easter eggs about Elliot’s past that only make sense in retrospect. Esmail plotted out the show meticulously, and the audience benefits greatly from how he crafted each stunning new twist.
Questioning your own sanity
Bloggers Tom and Lorenzo have been recapping the show. In their most recent post [note: spoilers abound in the link], they catch the essence of what makes Mr. Robot such a fascinating program: “Lots of good TV shows make you feel things, but we don’t think we’ve ever encountered a show that made us feel like we’re in some sort of delusionally paranoid fugue state.” When a program makes you question your own sanity, you know you are watching something special.
If True Detective’s second season left you cold and didn’t provide enough twists and turns to satisfy you, give Mr. Robot a chance. There are only two episodes left for this season (the show was picked up for a second season before it premiered), so there is still time to get caught up and experience the thrill of true paranoia before the end of the summer.
Oh, and look out for those men in the black suits. They are watching you.