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What is Mr. Robot?
There was likely one, across the globe reaction to Mr. Robot when commercials for the show started appearing a few months ago. I think I can sum it up with this statement; “it’s on USA? Pass.”. I can tell you right now that was my initial reaction. This isn’t to be mean to NBCUniversal’s minor league station; over the years, USA Network has had many a hit show, whether it was Burn Notice, Covert Affairs, Suits or WWE RAW. That being said, no one was going to consider anything the network produced to be on the level of a Breaking Bad. Thus, even though Mr. Robot looked as intriguing a show as ever, the fact that it was on USA made it easy to believe it was going to wind up as just another breezy, lighthearted, formulaic show like the rest of the network’s programming.
Boy was I and the rest of America wrong. Mr. Robot, created by Sam Esmail, is in fact nothing like anything the USA Network has produced in recent memory. In fact, it’s nothing like anything that’s been produced in television in the past few years, a bleak, angry, mysterious nomad on an island to itself. And man, what an island. It would be easy for me to just sit here and call Mr. Robot brilliant, but to be honest, you’re going to know that the moment Elliot (Rami Malek), Mr. Robot’s complex protagonist, begins to monologue before the lights even come on. What’s more fun to do is to figure out why this show is brilliant. Why? Because in the words of the late Roddy Piper, just when you think you know why, Mr. Robot changes the questions. Literally.
Take the show’s beginning for example. Our first look at Elliot, aside from him speaking to darkness, is at him in a coffee shop, confronting the owner over actions that would make another Elliot that appears on USA squirm. We learn that Elliot is a computer hacker who uses his talents like a cyber Batman, and before you even blink an eye, Elliot is walking out of the shop triumphantly as the police come to bring justice down on the coffee shop owner. Any other show, and this would’ve become the focus on the show, with Elliot saving the world one hack at a time. Only not here. By the end of the episode, the vigilante hacker theme will have given way to a much more complex narrative. Christian Slater will show up as the title character, an even more mysterious hacker who may want to save the world, even if it’s in the style of Ra's al Ghul. A corporation known as E Corp will take center stage the way no behind the scenes power group has since the Syndicate. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the first brilliant decision Mr. Robot makes, almost as if Esmail started the show at a fork in the road, with one way going towards hacker superhero and another going towards societal mindfuck. Thank goodness he chose the latter.
This is the sort of big, ambitious type of TV you would expect from a more mature, experienced creative mind, someone like David Lynch. That Esmail, a 37 year old with only one other credit to his film/TV resume (the ambitious indie romance Comet), is utterly remarkable. This isn’t just your everyday, regular TV show you see NBC, CBS or ABC pumping out every year. Mr. Robot is playing with toys that most networks wouldn’t allow creators to use; the show is at best anti-corporate and at worst a damning commentary on our society that would lead to cries of socialism from right wing pundits if they took time to view the show. It’s not subtle either. E Corp, the show’s villain, is known as Evil Corp to everyone under the sun, sporting a logo that eerily looks like a cross between Dell’s crooked E and a fascist symbol. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying; the fact that Esmail went such an overt route to show everyone what the show was about or that most of the characters in Mr. Robot recognize Evil Corp’s ways and yet operate in synch with it anyway.
Once you come to realize that point, it’s pretty clear what main theme Esmail is trying to play with here; hypocrisy. The reality of all this is that the world of Mr. Robot continuing to be so reliant on an entity that is admitted to be evil is no different than what we do in the real world. How many times have we continued to support something we consider to be bad? How many corporations continue to make money long after people protest for change in the streets? The history of the known world is full of people knowing something is wrong, and yet looking the other way for one reason or another anyway. This is nothing new; Mr. Robot just happens to be one of the first shows to throw this fact back into our face, to remind us that for all the power we supposedly have, we don’t really do much with it. Like the plot of the show, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg in exploring that theme. One scene, early in the show, features Elliot ranting on how the world is one big hoax, a serious of “counterfeit heroes” and us trying to sedate ourselves with the false intimacy of social media. It’s a stirring speech, and it’s also an ironic one, considering most fans of the show likely went to social media immediately afterwards to discuss the show. This sort of exploration, this throwing hypocrisy back into the face of the viewers and the network, isn’t just against the grain, it’s something that’s hardly ever been done before. It’s, in a way, a large part of what makes Mr. Robot such a captivating experience.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. The world Esmail has created, a rainy, depressing look at New York is fascinating, sort of like a warped vision of Woody Allen’s New York on its way to becoming the dystopian future of Blade Runner. Like most great settings, it’s somewhat of a character itself. As for the actual cast of characters, I can’t imagine Esmail finding a better group of performers than he has. It’s not just that everyone here does a bang up job, it’s how they are a legit group of misfits in the industry. Malek, who is electrifying every step of the way as Elliot, was a character actor at best before this show. Slater’s career had careened off the rails. Portia Doubleday, who plays Elliot’s coworker and childhood friend Angela, went from a budding star after the film Youth in Revolt to nowhere before Esmail found her. Hell, Martin Wallstrom, who played rising E Corp star Tyrell Wellick, was so unknown, I’m pretty sure most people thought he was a clone of Angel/Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser when he first appeared. Whether by design or not, Esmail’s choices of unknowns and forgotten performers couldn’t have fit the universe better. And frankly, his best choices weren’t even with the main cast (save for Malek, who I cannot praise enough). That distinction goes to the casting of Frankie Shaw, whose portrayal of Elliot’s girlfriend/neighbor/drug dealer Shayla is as gripping as anything I’ve seen in recent memory, a sort of beacon for Elliot in his otherwise grim world. If there’s any justice in the world, Shaw will become a star from this role. I certainly would be casting her in a lead role for something after watching her here.
It’s pretty clear at this point that Mr. Robot has all the pieces needed to succeed as it goes forward into another season. The question now becomes can it? Several shows/movies in the past like Twins Peaks, The X-Files and The Matrix (all which I have to believe inspired Esmail to some extent here) all tackled complex narratives about never/hardly explored topics (alternate realities, government conspiracies about aliens, supernatural realms, ect.). All of them succeeded for a time, only to fall due to an inability to answer senseless questions (The X-Files), studio interference (Twin Peaks) or being drowned in the excess of its own ideas (The Matrix sequels). Considering the themes Mr. Robot plays with dwarfs all three of those previous shows/franchises, it’s not wrong to assume that the show eventually turns into what it’s trying to critique or just loses itself in its own, complex ideas. As real a worry as that may be though, it should also be acknowledged that the sky may be the limit. I’ve never seen anything like Mr. Robot before, and I’ve never seen a TV network so enthusiastic about a show exploring ideas that don’t exactly reflect well on corporate America. Maybe that changes, maybe Esmail gets bored and moves on, maybe the show does eventually careen off a cliff. But maybe it also goes even further down the rabbit hole. And hell, I’m excited to see what’s on the other side. How about that? A couple of months ago, I sat on my couch and feared that Mr. Robot would end up being another Satisfaction. Instead, it’s brought television to its knees. Here’s hoping it doesn’t let it off them anytime soon.