Summer series on USA are usually the definition of breezy, featuring blue skies and the trappings of wealth, and not necessarily requiring a hefty dose of brainpower to consume. Mr. Robot is the opposite of all of that. It often takes place at night, but even its daytime scenes are subdued or subterranean. It rallies against a willfully complacent population, and bemoans the current state of wealth disparity. And, it throws around a ton of technical references and jargon that requires attention be paid to every detail.
And that, too, is why Mr. Robot is so good. The drama series, created by Sam Esmail, follows a tortured young cyber security engineer named Elliot (Rami Malek), who balances his work protecting corporations during the day by engaging in acts of hacker vigilantism at night. Elliot isn’t interested in blackmail, but in his own sense of justice. He turns offenders over to the police, along with the digital trail needed to incarcerate them, or in another example, he protects someone close to him by running a con man out of her life.
Elliot hacks everyone he comes into contact with, because that’s how he experiences social interaction. He has anxiety and depression, and the series’ pilot shows him both seeing a therapist (who he lies to, to make things easier for both of them), and also curled up in a corner of his dimly-lit apartment, sobbing uncontrollably from a generalized sadness he says he can no longer contain. When people talk to him, he runs down in his mind the things he’s learned about them from reading their emails, social media accounts, and digital histories, without engaging with them personally. He judges them, but also feels judged.
As Elliot, Rami Malek is the series’ absolute breakout star. He has wild eyes and an uneasy countenance, moving around furtively, with Elliot robotically telling everyone what they want to hear as he rails against society in his mind. We hear those thoughts through occasionally extensive voiceover, but in this show, it works. The audience has become Elliot’s “imaginary friend” he talks to, but it makes sense because he has such a rich inner life that drives him, one that is so at odds with the person he pretends to be in order to be more socially acceptable.
For the most part, Elliot is a loner, but he does have a connection with a childhood friend he works with, Angela (Portia Doubleday), on whom he harbors an unrequited crush. That connection becomes key later, after Elliot is courted by a talented underground hacker called Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). Before their first conversation, Elliot is challenged by him after he finds, and fixes, a major attack against a corrupt global corporation Elliot is paid to protect, E Corp (which he calls Evil Corp). The virus contained encoded text that asks him not to delete it, and he hesitates before choosing.
That hesitation kicks off a lot of long, but always engaging conversations between Robot and Elliot that revolve around whether or not Elliot is willing to help a hacker group bring down E Corp, including wiping out its debt centers. Elliot desires revolution, but is skeptical that it can happen, or that this is the right way to do it. He worries about his boss and Angela losing their jobs as consequence of him helping to tackle E Corp, though the series never expressly links these fears. Instead, it plays visually out through a variety of other scenes, allowing viewers to put things together. (And this is where those earlier personal connections start to count — Elliot is not a robot. If anything, he feels too much).
There are a number of twists and turns that prove Elliot’s already complicated choices are about to increasingly complex. But Mr. Robot proves consistently that there is every reason to stick around and get tangled up in this web as well. In its opener, the show is ambitious, stylish, and has found the perfect lead in Malek. His performance makes Elliot mesmerizingly off-kilter, and it fits the show’s overall aesthetic. It tackles big questions about technology, ethics, the human mind, and more — not exactly the usual fair for any TV show, let alone USA in the summertime.
That, among other things, makes it a bold move for USA, but one that will hopefully pay off by connecting with viewers. Unlike some tech-focused series, it has found a way to turn someone typing on a keyboard into heart-pounding action, even as it shows the coding and other tech on screen. Elliot convincingly talks about onion sites, rerouting servers, DDoS attacks, and much more, and drops online language into his natural parlance. But he also is intrigued and impressed by Robot’s superior skills, not only as someone to learn from, but someone who may understand him.
Ultimately, Mr. Robot is a strange, engaging, and dynamic new series that should make viewers feel challenged and even uncomfortable. It hits odd beats and requires attention, but it’s certainly no chore. “I’m very different,” Elliot explains early in the pilot episode. That’s a very good thing.
Rating: ★★★★★ An excellent start
Mr. Robot premieres Wednesday, June 24th at 10 p.m. on USA