It’s something of a backhanded compliment to say that Mr. Robot, USA’s divertingly dippy new techno-thriller series, is entertainingly derivative. But it’s the show’s over-reliance on aping a handful of familiar predecessors that, in addition to a compelling lead, keeps its pilot episode zipping along.
The story of a maladjusted loner using technology to lash out at what he sees as the unremedied evils eating away at the world, Mr. Robot stars an edgily magnetic Rami Malek (probably, and regrettably, best known as the reanimated pharaoh in the Night At The Museum movies), as Elliot, a cyber-security technician by day, vigilante hacker by night. As required of all fictional hackers, Elliot is somewhere on the autism spectrum: He carefully crushes up his daily dose of self-medicating morphine, and occasionally weeps in the corner of his apartment. When not acting as his security firm’s whiz kid, Elliot indulges in a secret passion: hacking into the lives of those he deems in need of exposure or adjustment.
Malek is Mr. Robot’s chief asset, his slender frame and sleepy eyes both terribly vulnerable and genuinely unsettling, the input from his unstable mind infiltrating the world of the show just as his unparalleled hacker skills assert insidious control over others’ lives. While he respects them both, he decides his ineffectual therapist (Gloria Reuben) needs to know her new lover is a serial cheat, but leaves his only friend Angela (Portia Doubleday, in dull supportive-pal mode) in ignorant bliss about her straying dudebro boyfriend because, as he says in voice-over, “Angela has terrible taste in men, and I’m not ready to meet the next one yet.” Elliot has trained his mind to hear the name of his chief nemesis—the massive conglomerate E Corp—as “Evil Corp,” and that extends to the viewer as well. We hear this modified moniker in Elliot’s constant inner monologue and in the mouths of other characters, and see references to “Evil Corp” on billboards and the evening news. It’s an effectively eerie way to suggest that events are in the hands of an unreliable narrator, something Elliot himself fights against.
Elliot’s unpredictable, morally queasy quest for online justice makes for Mr. Robot’s most intriguing element, one that goes a long way toward selling the show’s parallel political agenda, especially when Mr. Robot himself shows up in the person of Christian Slater’s revolution-minded super-hacker. Inevitably recalling Slater’s teen rebel drama Pump Up The Volume, Mr. Robot’s actions—infiltrating Evil Corp and reinforcing Elliot’s assertion that the powers that be need to be taken down—draw from the same angsty well. Indeed, it’s easy to think that Mr. Robot is Pump Up The Volume’s outlaw DJ Hard Harry, released from jail 25 years later and realizing that using ham radio to bring down corrupt school administrators isn’t enough any more. That’s not a knock on Slater, whose performance here traffics in his signature sharky charisma without overdoing it. It’s just that the show’s revolutionary spirit is essentially as juvenile as Hard Harry’s.
When Elliot responds to his therapist’s question, “What is it about society that disappoints you so much?” the ensuing rant could pass for one of Harry’s radio harangues—at least it would if Elliot threw in a few more dick jokes. Railing against, in order, fallen heroes, social media, meaningless elections, and numbing consumerism, Elliot’s litany of the world’s woes is as sophisticated as those dumb ol’ Facebookers he’s criticizing. And Mr. Robot’s plan to bring down Evil Corp doesn’t elevate the discussion much further, for all the glee Slater gives his recruitment speech. Show creator Sam Esmail clearly has some things to say about the wealth gap in America—but Mr. Robot is a tinny mouthpiece.
Apart from all the allusiveness—Elliot’s a secretive hacker being trailed by Matrix-esque agents, Mr. Robot makes his appeal to the big picture on The Third Man’s Ferris wheel (Coney Island’s subbing for Vienna’s), Elliot’s voice-over and the secret trophy hoard from his hacking victims both recall Dexter—Mr. Robot engages in some blunt storytelling throughout. When Elliot is deciding whether to aid Mr. Robot, he Googles articles on the debt crisis and looks up Angela’s crippling student loan debt for our benefit. He’s still not certain during a meeting with Evil Corp’s Donald Trump-esque executive (Bruce Altman)—until the exec’s actions make the decision for him.
For all its flaws, the Mr. Robot pilot isn’t without promise. Malek is riveting, especially when Elliot’s skills are giving him the upper hand, or when his neuroses turn him against himself. Slater and Wellick fill out their roles with prickly personality, and the episode (helmed by Niels Arden Oplev, director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) even manages to make the requisite “hackers typing really fast while looking at computer screens” scenes relatively exciting. The look of the show—pale faces bathed in flickering computer screens, overcast days and dingy electric nights—make for a suitably claustrophobic and worn New York City. (Mac Quayle’s John Carpenter-esque throwback music assists.) And the series’ structure—set up to alternate Elliot’s “monster of the week” vigilante justice with the overarching conspiracy plot—has enough flavors to keep the show fresh. Mr. Robot’s just not as revolutionary as it thinks it is.