It’s increasingly hard to sneak something past the watchers on the wall of contemporary pop culture. Even the smallest crumbs of news are intercepted and repackaged as freshly baked content. It’s a moment in which albums have trailers, trailers have teasers, and teasers have talking points. Battle lines of opinion are often drawn before the first shots have been filmed. Is it any wonder that, when it comes to things we stare at on screens, genuine surprise has become as rare a commodity as kindness?
There’s a perfectly good reason for this zone-flooding, of course, and one that extends far beyond my own employment. With so much competition for our eyes, ears, minds, and tweets, it’s no longer enough for any work to stand on its own — it must jostle for our attention, from the moment of conception until the final hashtag is ripped from our exhausted, callused fingers. Movies are the greatest offenders in this regard, with companies spending millions of dollars to prime our collective pumps for projects that won’t even begin casting for years. But TV isn’t far behind: Game of Thrones is a 24/7 business for HBO, with a steady stream of casting announcements, teases, and reveals barely satisfying a legion of perpetually thirsty obsessives. I’m not entirely sure this model is sustainable — surely it’s possible to drown in the constant drip-drops of leaks? But transforming obsessives into experts and casual viewers into full-time fans is a smart way to guarantee audience interest in an industry beset by chaos.
So there’s something undeniably electric about being jolted when you least expect it. And that’s precisely what made the arrival of Mr. Robot feel so revolutionary last week. Though by no means unpromoted — billboards were visible in Manhattan for weeks; the pilot was posted on Facebook in May — the USA drama nevertheless sneaked into most people’s lives like a thief. It went from something seemingly forgettable — an unheralded cyberthriller burdened with a dopey title and marooned on an unlikely network — to unmissable in a matter of hours. The morning after its premiere, mentions of the show began to metastasize on my social media feeds like a virus. The avalanche of messages I received over the past week weren’t so much laudatory as they were bewildered: Have you seen this? Is it really that good? When is this thing on? TV viewers are used to dipping a toe into a warm, comfortable bath of curated discovery: The arrival of Mr. Robot, by contrast, was like being splashed with a bucket of cold water. Finally, the shock of the new!
So let me say, definitively, to everyone asking: Mr. Robot is plenty good, especially the pilot. But more importantly, Mr. Robot is genuinely exhilarating. Here, at last, is a show that doesn’t care one whit about our expectations or our skepticism. There’s no hand-holding, no patience. The series doesn’t begin so much as it explodes with an almost messianic confidence: a black screen, a voice inside our head calling us “friend” and warning of slippery slopes, of conspiracies “bigger than all of us.”
But then the screen blinks awake and we realize the narrator isn’t in our skull at all. Rather, we’ve somehow been smuggled into his. If the past generation of ambitious dramas thrust us into the orbit of brilliant, unstable men, Mr. Robot is the first to embed us directly inside of one. The entire story is told from the untrustworthy POV of one Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a skittery, morphine-addicted computer tech who is as asocial as he is brilliant. From beneath his ever-present black hoodie, Elliot processes the world a pixel at a time and hates much of what he sees: the corporate tentacles squeezed around every illusory choice, the shiny veneer of digital likes and faves masking the same old analog violence and fear. Better, we see it, too, through Elliot’s addled eyes: Shot with unsettling wit and verve, Mr. Robot presents contemporary New York City the way its protagonist views it: as a grim, vertiginous dystopia of commerce and deception. Colors are reserved for ads. Honesty is the last resort of suckers.
As the series begins, Elliot spends his days toiling away for AllSafe Security, a subcontracting firm hired by a shadowy multinational called E Corp to keep its servers clean. But in his off hours, he plays Ethernet vigilante, uncovering and confronting pedophile business owners and protecting his shrink (ER’s Gloria Reuben) and drug dealer pal (Frankie Shaw) from menaces both cyber and otherwise. Elliot’s loner tendencies are compromised when he’s contacted by the titular Mr. Robot, the scruffy leader of a shadowy, hacktivist cabal called “fsociety” (think Anonymous mixed with V for Vendetta) brought to delirious, stubbly life by Christian Slater.1 Fsociety’s goals are not modest. It wants to liberate the 99 percent from E Corp’s gilded prison. And it wants Elliot — with his brains and his access, not necessarily in that order — to help smash the lock.
Shouts to Slater, by the way, for finally hitching himself to a winning wagon! He’s terrific here. Imagine Pump Up the Volume’s immortal Happy Harry Hard-On gone all dark and floppy.
It’s rare enough for a television show distributed by a major media conglomerate and broadcast on a basic cable channel — one named after the great country in which we live, no less! — to be so nakedly cynical about capitalism, so overt in its ideological leanings. There are no wink-wink references to “YouFace” or “Bockmail,” no lightly fictionalized world leaders who charm from behind the shrugging disguise of invention. Mr. Robot names names, those of people and particularly those of the specially protected people known as corporations. Elliot hacks into the Facebook profiles of colleagues, scans the Twitter feeds of enemies, and ponders the difference between Blue Cross and Blue Shield. In the background, his colleagues rail against “economic slavery” and “the illegitimate prison of debt.” When, in a later episode, Elliot attempts to unplug himself from the loneliness of his tinfoil-hat-wearing existence, he sounds like the love child of Naomi Klein and Max Headroom: “I’ll go see those stupid Marvel movies … I’ll join a gym. I’ll heart things on Instagram. I’ll drink vanilla lattes. I’m going to live a bug-free life from now on.” Good luck with that. I’m going to go ahead and assume there’s a reason why E Corp is referred to by all and sundry as “Evil Corp.”
This isn’t subtle, but it is striking, especially considering the lengths most high-profile dramas go to distance themselves from anything timely or contentious. (The road from West Baltimore to Westeros apparently only runs in one direction.) Still, Mr. Robot’s politics — which I would characterize as slightly to the left of Edward Snowden taking bong rips on Noam Chomsky’s patio — aren’t nearly as radical as its perspective. The show feels unencumbered by the familiar, often-narcotizing weight of television convention primarily because it is. Creator Sam Esmail began the story as a film script. When it got too long, his agents suggested TV. When TV suggested changes — no voice-over, for example — he refused, despite having only a single credit on his résumé (the lightly received 2014 indie Comet). It’s not hard to draw a line between Elliot’s stubbornness and that of his creator.
The result is a potentially open-ended series that feels utterly uninterested in behaving like one,2 in both form and content. Mr. Robot’s opening credits are highly stylized, a 1980s blockbuster in miniature. But equally precarious is the show’s central conceit. A film can maintain a subjective point of view thanks to a limited run time. But it’s much, much harder in a weekly series, particularly one with a supporting cast to service. Mr. Robot is entirely dependent on Elliot: It’s his voice that advances the plot, it’s his worldview that infects our own. Slater’s Mr. Robot never seems to speak to anyone but Elliot. Is he real or a Tyler Durden–esque projection of an addict’s ravaged psyche?3 That’s a tough tightrope to walk in two hours, let alone 22. And, thrillingly, Esmail doesn’t seem to care at all.
The safest thing about Mr. Robot is that Elliot’s coworker, played by Portia Doubleday, is his childhood best friend, Angela; and his boss, Gideon, is played by Michel Gill, last seen playing President Dingbat on House of Cards. Casting Gill once again as an authority figure is absolutely a joke — I just can’t tell who is in on it.
Indeed, Mr. Robot’s plan to erase the world’s debt echoes Durden’s scheme in Fight Club.
Of course, like any good #culture #disruptor, Esmail isn’t working alone. Though the creator wrote and directed upcoming episodes, the pilot was helmed by Niels Arden Oplev, a Dane responsible for the original adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Openly dismissive of the standard TV template of one-shots and two-shots, Oplev moves his camera like a computer worm, wriggling into tight spaces and invading personal space. (Check out the way he shoots fellow Swede Martin Wallström as the villainous Tyrell Wellick — think Pete Campbell with Viking blood icing through his veins — like a Synth on loan from AMC’s Humans.) It’s the most aesthetically compelling and visually inventive premiere since The Knick. But the greatest special effect is Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot. His face as smooth as an iPhone 6, Malek is preposterously charismatic, even while playing the dropbox of contradictions lurking inside of Elliot’s heart. While the character rages against public power, he shows little compunction about wielding it for himself in private as he rifles through personal files. It’s in these moments that Malek’s radiant blankness truly illuminates. Mr. Robot doesn’t shy away from the fact that truth-tellers are often assholes, and that insurgents tend to make the best tyrants. Making Malek the face of 21st-century paranoia is like telling San Andreas from the perspective of the fault.
As with most upstarts, consistency will be the real challenge. Already there are signs of slippage: Last night’s episode lacked the mania of the first (though I appreciated the bizarro love quadrangle that’s forming between Malek, Doubleday, Shaw, and Suburgatory’s Carly Chaikin as an Uncanny Valley Girl) and next week’s is more problematic still, as Esmail attempts to expand the narrative outside of Elliot’s furiously spinning hard drive. (The further we get from Elliot’s head, the clunkier Esmail’s writing tends to feel.) But even if it never replicates the dopamine high of the first hour, Mr. Robot is still well worth your time. A few weeks ago I bemoaned the lack of truly avant-garde, envelope-pushing television, and while Esmail’s Erector set might not fit the bill, it comes awfully close.
Elliot may fancy himself a subversive, but it’s Esmail himself who appears more willing to stick his neck out for what he believes. Jacked on a strong cocktail of ego and imagination, Mr. Robot doesn’t merely suggest a new energy for American TV storytelling; it demands one, grabbing our attention and rejiggering a network’s staid identity in the process. (How can USA go back to the sunglasses-porn of Burn Notice after this?!?) It’s not a surprise to say Big Brother is watching us. But who could’ve predicted how much fun it would be to sit and watch it right back?