‘Mr. Robot’: TV Review

Sarah Shatz/USA Network
Fun, fun, fun with the automaton.

In this new series starring Christian Slater, a vigilante hacker finds himself caught between a corporate rock and an anarchic hard place.

First things first: There’s no actual android in the gripping new USA series Mr. Robot, at least based on the two episodes sent out for review.

The mechanoid title actually refers to the pseudonym used by a mysterious, maybe malevolent computer jock (Christian Slater) planning to strike a major blow against our capitalist overlords. In a standard series, he’d be the antiheroic star, but Mr. Robot is actually a supporting player in the story named for him. The show’s real lead is Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), an aloof computer programmer at a cyber security firm who is recruited by Mr. Robot to join his elite team of underground hackers.

Elliot is a lone operator when we first meet him. He keeps up a paranoid internal monologue with himself and every image (the camera locked down, the angles canted, the compositions continually off-kilter) seems to complement his distress. The pilot — stylishly helmed by the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev and shot by frequent Girls cinematographer Tim Ives — actually made a splash earlier this year at the South by Southwest festival, winning numerous plaudits and an audience award. It’s easy to see why: there’s a grabber of a scene early on in which a twitchy Elliot approaches the nonplussed owner of a coffee house chain and eventually cows him into submission with digitally procured evidence of a very, very dark secret.

It’s every social maladapt’s desire to wield such power, and Elliot is a kind of uber-nerd wet dream — always broody enough that he can maintain his chilly street cred, but equally alluring enough (with his alabaster-smooth skin, pleading eyes, and superhero hoodie) to fall into bed, however regretfully, with his manic pixie drug dealer. The series is ridiculous in description and enthralling in execution because of Malek’s natural charisma and his way with creator and head writer Sam Esmail’s frequent jeremiads against the powerful and moneyed.

Visions of Edward Norton railing against Ikea and its ilk in Fight Club (1999) may come to mind when Elliot goes on a lengthy tirade against the “1% of the 1%.” (Not coincidentally, the show is a coproduction with Anonymous Content, where that incendiary film’s director, David Fincher, honed his craft and whose clinically accomplished aesthetic Mr. Robot often emulates.) And there is a big business big bad in the form of the ubiquitous E-Corp — which the characters continuously refer to as “Evil Corp” — a greedy conglomerate seemingly fronted by its smarmy Chief Technology Officer Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström).

But is Mr. Robot the answer to E-Corp’s pernicious effects on our civilization or just an equally nihilistic mirror image? Slater is excellent at playing both sides of the Savior/Satan coin: He approaches Elliot in the guise of a homeless man, tempting him with promises of a global financial catastrophe— a cleansing apocalypse implemented entirely in virtual space that will wreak untold havoc on the real world. The first two episodes give us tantalizing glimpses of how this might play out over the first season’s ten installments, with Mr. Robot slowly upping his messianic musings from the Coney Island hideout he calls home (the series makes superb use of locations in Manhattan and neighboring boroughs) and Elliot equally enticed by the snake-tongued Wellick’s offer of a lucrative job at E-Corp. 

The impression is that Elliott belongs nowhere. He’s best as a man without a country, and the finest sequences in the series tend to be those where he isn’t weighing which devil to put his chips with — just existing in his own bizarre headspace. A stellar scene in episode two sees Elliot listening to the junkie ramblings of his drug dealer inamorata’s boyfriend. It’s a verbose monologue that actually has the intriguing effect of making you focus on the person who isn’t speaking. (And as good as Malek is at delivering his character’s frigid lines, he’s even better at silently reacting to others.) Hopefully, over the long haul Mr. Robot can sustain this unsettling tone — and do justice to this fascinatingly oddball character.

Twitter: @keithuhlich