Domo arigato. Last week, the USA Network premiered a very promising new drama series called ‘Mr. Robot’. Despite the title, no, the show has nothing to do with robots. (Ironically, for that you need to watch the new AMC series ‘Humans’.) What it does have is a very fascinating premise and lead character.
Rami Malek from ‘The Pacific’ stars as Elliot, a brilliant computer programmer who works for a cyber security firm by day and acts as a vigilante hacker by night. Uh, that sounds kind of horrible, doesn’t it? That sentence sends shivers up my spine with traumatic memories of watching ‘Scorpion‘. Don’t worry, it’s not like that. The thing about Elliot is that he’s also a paranoid schizophrenic. He spends the entire pilot episode having a conversation in his head with someone unidentified (or perhaps just with viewers of the show). He believes that Men in Black working for the secret “One-Percent of the One-Percent” ruling this country are stalking him. He routinely has very vivid delusions of things that only happen in his mind, and he often can’t tell the difference.
Elliot is seeing a therapist about his serious social anxiety issues, but (like most anyone he interacts with who interests him) he cyber-stalks her and digs up unpleasant information about her new boyfriend. He then uses this to blackmail the man into breaking up with her, which Elliot sees as being in the woman’s best interest whether she wants it or not. Elliot is obsessed with digging into everyone else’s secretes. Another act of vigilante justice he exacts is to anonymously tip off police about a coffee shop owner whom he discovers runs a child porn web site.
Elliot hates his job. He’s assigned to work on the account of a major conglomerate called ECorp, which he refers to as “EvilCorp,” and soon that’s exactly what it’s called everywhere else in the show – by other characters he works with, by employees of that company, and even on news broadcasts. This place is so shady they use the actual Enron logo.
EvilCorp has recently been the target of numerous cyber attacks. A particularly nasty virus almost takes out all the company’s servers until Elliot manages to stop it. I have no idea how much of the techie jargon used in the show is realistic and how much is Hollywood bullshit, but the main hacking sequence is quite suspensefully staged. (The director of the pilot episode is Niels Arden Oplev, who undoubtedly got the job on the basis of making the original Swedish ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’.) I have a feeling that the part where we can see a graphic illustration of the various servers going offline is probably nonsense, and I cringed a little when a character who damn well ought to already know the answer asks Elliot what a rootkit is.
Elliot finds a strange message waiting for him in the code of the virus, asking him not to delete it. Intrigued, he walls it off so that only he can access it but leaves it there. Elliot then finds himself repeatedly running into a strange homeless man (Christian Slater) only identified by the phrase “Mr. Robot” sewn into his jacket. Robot tells Elliot to follow him, and leads him to a secret hacking compound run out of an abandoned arcade at Coney Island. He explains that his band of hackers have some sort of ‘Fight Club’ type of plan to destroy the consumer credit industry (which of course EvilCorp is a major player in) and free the proletariat from the shackles of debt. To do this, they need Elliot’s help to dismantle EvilCorp a little bit at a time.
Elliot likes the idea of his. He frames EvilCorp’s jackass Chief Technology Officer for the cyber attack on his own company. At first, nothing happens. Elliot returns to Coney Island and finds the arcade empty. When the CTO is finally arrested, Elliot feels victorious, but his triumph is short-lived. Almost immediately, he’s snatched up by Men in Black who ferry him to a secret boardroom to meet the Illuminati, one of whom is a douchebag underling at EvilCorp who very likely stands to benefit from the CTO’s arrest.
The first episode is, overall, really great. It doesn’t feel like any other show on television at all. It plays more like a really slick and clever indie film that’s been condensed into a TV pilot. Malek is terrific, and his character is really unique.
I’m less sold on Christian Slater or his storyline, which feels a little too conventional and thriller-like. However, keeping in mind that Elliot is schizophrenic, the question is open as to whether Mr. Robot is real at all or just a delusion in Elliot’s head. For that matter, did his meeting with the Illuminati happen either? It’s hard to know exactly how much of what we see can be believed or trusted.
This show has great promise. The USA Network programming execs are so sold on it that they already renewed the series for a second season before the pilot even aired. (A free preview was available on many VOD platforms in advance of the broadcast, and apparently it drew a lot of eyeballs.) I’m excited to see where this goes.