Tim Goodman: Why 'Mr. Robot' Ran Away With the Summer

Mr. Robot S01E01 Still - H 2015
Sarah Shatz/USA Network

Mr. Robot S01E01 Still - H 2015

Here’s what you can say about Mr. Robot, the surprisingly addictive, entertaining and popular out-of-nowhere summer series on the USA channel: It’s a lot more than just unexpected.

As its slightly-delayed freshman season finale cues up tonight, Mr. Robot ends up being much more than a summer series that inexplicably rose from the clutter of our Platinum Age of television overkill, where having people remember your title seems like a victory, let alone becoming something people banter about in the zeitgeist.

But it did and they did. And so Mr. Robot has emerged the feel-good hit of — no, wait, it’s so much more than that too.

Here's one of the oddest things about this series, created by Sam Esmail, who was basically trying to make a second feature film and — almost by default —  settled on a television series: so much about it shouldn’t work.

To reiterate: So much.

In the pilot, the narration is at once annoying and cluttered and has all the leanings of being lazy. But then it works. And then you like it.

It’s on USA. No, really, it’s on the USA Network or channel or whatever the hell it is now. Yes, previous USA shows have worked, most notably Burn Notice and Suits, but there’s been a lot of forgettable blue-sky blather mixed in that has obscured a real functioning brand.

The series also positioned Christian Slater as a co-lead, but that was worrisome given his TV track record (not good) and the possibility that this was some ill-advised summer star-vehicle for Slater. It turned out not to be that, while also being a very good showcase for Slater — another "how-did-that-happen?" element to the show.

Mr. Robot was also about computer hackers and, well, both movies and television have absolutely no idea how to turn people staring at screens and typing on keyboards into drama. There’s a history of boring failure there. And the whole landscape of hacker culture has been reduced to "people who can code are like nerdy unicorns" — which doesn’t do anyone any favors. Just look at CSI: Cyber and, well, then look away. But the point is, a show about hackers was probably going to be a non-starter.

Until it was clear that Esmail and his writers knew what they were doing. Until in the rarest of ways, it actually made computer knowledge and the implementation of that for nefarious reasons both dramatically intriguing and believable.

All of those extremely unlikely combinations and elements worked, almost unbelievably, as you watched. Nothing about Mr. Robot really should have gelled, or moved viewers — at best — past the second episode.

But here’s the real key to its success, what tech stories of yesteryear would have called the killer app: Rami Malek.

As Elliot, the on-the-spectrum, drug-addicted computer hacker, Malek is the star of Mr. Robot in ways that Slater, as described above, is not (and the better for it in both instances). But here is the single craziest thing about Mr. Robot that makes its success, its literal existence, nearly impossible to fathom: Take away Malek and the whole show implodes. It doesn’t, not even for five minutes, work. You can’t put Jon Hamm in that role and have a show. You can't put — well, I’ve done this little exercise on down the line like obsessively — anyone else in that role and have it work. It can’t be pictured.

So two things are at play here. Not only is Malek absolute perfection in the same way that Tatiana Maslany is for Orphan Black, but he represents the ultimate exclamation point about the importance of casting.

Mr. Robot, then, is a delicate yet demanding vehicle that is utterly sustained by its star in every frame — that would implode by the first act break with anyone else in the role. That would be lambasted with anyone else in the role. That, without Malek's presence, would be less than — not even close to — a one-and-done niche cable channel story nobody remembers.

Malek makes the show.

For me, above all the other iffy propositions in Mr. Robot, the perfection of Malek is the key. I wouldn’t want to imagine it, but you could probably put someone other than Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad or Hamm in Mad Men and have either series work, at least for a little while. As perfect as they proved themselves to be for those roles, turn back time and really think about another actor and, begrudgingly, sure — it can be done.

And here’s part of the reason why: a superb but ill-fitting actor in place of Cranston or Hamm gets you maybe four episodes before the evidence suggests that something is off. Something is missing. But there was so much else going on in those shows — specifically the writing — to carry them well beyond what the main star brought to the table.

Five minutes or under without Malek and Mr. Robot gets turned off by the entire country. And the reason is because Esmail is asking him, as the lead, to be odd — he’s got social anxiety/awkwardness that clearly tracks toward Asperger’s. Malek’s wide-eyed shyness but determined, expressionless stare – no distracting ticks and head shakes – makes that happen. But Esmail is also asking him to be a combination of addicted, addled and empty – an unreliable narrator (there’s that voiceover again) who can and will lead us astray. The entire show demands that viewers just go with it – that they follow Elliot’s dubious mental transgressions and life decisions as the story careens ever more wildly from episode to episode.

With the wrong actor, nobody gets out of here alive. Nobody watches a second episode, much less an entire season.

You could argue that maybe there’s some genius in that – that Mr. Robot is something truly special as a whole. But I would argue that it’s a very idiosyncratic, highly entertaining series (a nice achievement) that is still a very long way from proving its greatness or viability. It got us all to the finale, almost against the odds, by subverting the very obvious influences it wears so proudly. But it doesn’t get to prove to viewers that it’s winking at all those influences unless it gets beyond the pilot and stays relevant. Which it only does because Malek infuses an impossible character with the exactly right level of believability.

And while Mr. Robot has a not-entirely-difficult-to-figure-out trick up its sleeve (already revealed for those who have watched this far, but something I won’t spoil for those who should absolutely start binging it now), those who picked up on it early kept watching because Malek had made the Elliot character not just compelling and likeable – while doing both boring and unethical things – but enigmatic enough to pursue into another season. This goes beyond “rooting” for a character, good guy or not. Malek is so exceptional that he makes Mr. Robot essential – and his journey, even when you know the conceit of the show, is one you want to follow.

Look, no matter what happens in the season finale, Mr. Robot has been a rare and intriguing television accomplishment so far, for almost none of the reasons traditionally associated with that kind of thing. It’s been thrilling to witness, because its success is almost shockingly inconceivable.

It’s the little show that shouldn’t have, but did. And Rami Malek is the reason.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine