Summertime has become a period where networks tend to experiment and try out riskier programming fare. ‘Mr. Robot,’ one of, if not, the best new series to premiere this year, is one such show given a shot by the USA network. It’s a portrait of mental illness, a condemnation of our technologically dependent society, and a satire on the pervasive influence of corporate conglomeration – entertainment and art reminiscent of ‘Fight Club,’ ‘V For Vendetta,’ with an aesthetic that invokes comparison to Kubrick and Fincher. Creator Sam Esmail (writer/director of multiple episodes) and star Rami Malek, are emerging talents to watch, and based on a near perfect first season, have created a modern paranoid screed that also happens to be very entertaining.
‘Mr. Robot’ centers on Elliot Alderson (Malek), a socially awkward computer systems genius with deep-rooted psychological issues, no doubt sparked by the untimely death of his father as a boy, as well as possible abuse at the hands of his mother. Elliot is an unlikely character to mold a story around, partly because he is played by Malek with a bug-eyed intensity and a tendency to alienate everyone around him, but more importantly, because he is an unreliable narrator. His inner thoughts are conveyed via voice-over, where he breaks the 4th wall and addresses the audience, but not as an audience, but as another character/active witness to the proceedings. Elliot has a mundane job with his childhood best friend Angela (Portia Doubleday, intriguing in her own right as a young careerist struggling with business and personal ethics) at Allsafe, a computer security service company run by Gideon (Michel Gill, convincingly playing someone that Elliot describes as one of the only purely good people he knows). Allsafe’s biggest customer is the E Corporation (once introduced by its’ proper name it is subsequently referred to as ‘Evil’ Corp. by all characters even when we know they mean to say ‘E’ Corp) – when Eliot is not anonymously busting philanderers and drug dealers through personal hacks, his focus is railing against this company that has its’ hands in everything, including the untimely deaths of both Elliot’s father and Angela’s mother.
Elliot is drawn into this crusade by a mysterious character called Mr.Robot, played with a triumphant return to form by Christian Slater (after a series of misfires on network TV, Slater seems to have found his groove as the elusive instigator and firebrand). It should be no surprise, based on the title of the show, that this character plays a vital part in both Elliot’s life and the overall driving narrative. Another interesting character is young Evil Corporation executive, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom in another of the show’s breakout performances as an extreme satirical version of a corporate climber), whose storyline seems to intersect Elliot’s and Mr. Robot’s throughout this first season.
The aesthetic and design of the series is a unique one for television, very cinematic and R-rated (or MA for the tv set), never shying away from risky, subversive imagery and content. The audience at once roots for and loathes many actions of the characters on screen, quickly establishing them as fleshed out and three-dimensional, if unpredictable. The show’s creator wears his influences on his sleeve, even referencing the films and source material he both cribs from, and fleshes out even further (listen for the ‘Fight Club’ homage in one key scene late in the season where a minimalist piano version of The Pixies, ‘Where is My Mind,’ plays in the background; similarly, much of his askew and long-take framing evokes Tarantino and Kubrick, hence direct references to Pulp Fiction and striking episode title designs). The dialogue here is captivating, every scene a worthy plot advancer or character developer, and there isn’t a wasted episode in the entire season. Engrossing, thought-provoking entertainment, ‘Mr. Robot’ is not only one to watch, it may be one worth revisiting . . .
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -or- A