Mr. Robot First Impressions
So… I think I fell in love with Mr. Robot within 4 minutes. That may sound like the peculiar first line of a bizarre new anime, but, in truth, it is actually my view on USA’s newest drama. On paper it hardly comes off as a subtle work, and in all honesty, it isn’t, but Mr. Robot is smart enough to overcome it’s brash and direct nature with great writing, characterization, and plotting. Perhaps the most notable aspect is the main character, Elliot, played by Rami Malek. I suppose it’s not surprising that Mr. Robot would have an interesting main character. Hell, the network’s slogan is Character’s Welcome. What I find surprising is how against the grain this character comes off as being. Over roughly the last 10 years, I have felt that USA fell into the trap of trying to constantly remake their biggest success. Most of their more prominent shows seemed to by trying to follow, rather carefully, in the footsteps of Monk. Think of the number of shows that USA has aired that could be described as “upbeat procedurals with quirky but talented protagonists who are pursuing a particular goal,” and you start to realize that the network has largely been relying on titles that largely fit those parameters. Psych, Burn Notice, White Collar, Royal Pains, Suits, a lot of these shows fit the bill, so to see such a cynical, sarcastic, misanthropic show make its way onto this network is almost paradoxically delightful.
Mr. Robot centers around Elliot, a cyber-security engineer who moonlights as a vigilante hacker. In the first few minutes we see him walk up to the owner of a chain of coffeehouses and rip the man’s life apart, as Elliot reveals that he hacked into the man’s network and found that the man, Ron, had been maintaining a Tor network which he was using to maintain a server dedicated to child pornography. Ron accuses Elliot of trying to blackmail him and he states that he will not pay him anything, but Elliot informs him that the only reason he is doing this in person is so that he can work on his social skills. He states that he had already submitted the information to the police anonymously, and, as he walks towards the exit of the cafe with cop cars pulling up outside, he states that he was never in it for the money. Malek plays Elliot with a form of bug-eyed detachment that is reminiscent of Simon Bellamy from Misfits in all the right ways. The entirety of the show is seen from his perspective. The first episode, amusingly titled eps1.0_hellofriend.mov, makes it clear that Elliot’s grasp on reality is not always a firm one, and when he slips into delusion the viewer follows him. The tone for the episode could probably be best described as an amalgam of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Fight Club. Elliot’s narration is very much in line with that of Fight Club’s narrator, as both use the voice over as an opportunity to rail against corporations, trends, and aspects of social behavior that irritate them. Likewise, Elliot has the rather Salander-esque habit of hacking roughly everyone he meets which helps add credence to his cynical view of the world since he often has the personal knowledge to back up his arguments. If there is one problem that I have with the show, it is that Elliot’s view of things can sometimes feel lacking in nuance. Big bad corporations are inherently evil and human beings are on some level inherently corrupt. I’m not even saying that I fully disagree (though I would argue that corporations are inherently amoral), but it seems that they could allowed for a bit more subtlety in regards to his social views, though admittedly this is only the first episode and this may be unsubtle by design.
Fortunately, there is plenty of subtlety in how Mr. Robot deals with introducing the rest of its characters. I should take a moment to talk about Christian Slater’s eponymous character, but there is not too much to work off of yet. All we know about him so far is that he is skilled, he is affable, and he has an enthusiasm for things that could be considered nostalgic. In a sense, it feels like his character from True Romance might have just stumbled into this plot and made himself comfortable. That’s not really a complaint though. It would be a complaint if I said that his character from Alone in the Dark stumbled into this series. As it stands, he simply hasn’t had a chance to distinguish this from his other performances, but I suspect that he will get that opportunity as the series continues. Most of the other characters come off, at least initially, as stereotypes. For example, we have Angela, the childhood friend & coworker who is a stabilizing force for Elliot and a potential love interest, we have her almost cartoonish boyfriend, Ollie, who seemingly can’t complete a single sentence without using the word ‘bro,’ the polite and caring therapist, Krista, and we have the high-strung boss, Gideon, who initially feels like he might have just run here from the set of Office Space. I say ‘initially’ because what intrigues me most about Mr. Robot is that it takes these seemingly recycled characters and breathes life and depth into them. This really hit me when Gideon, after completing an emergency overnight job with Elliot, turns to him and has what feels like a legitimate human conversation with him. Most of the characters we are presented with are given similar treatment, and those moments do a great job of offering up characterization where we might not have expected it.
The plot of eps1.0_hellofriend.mov is a little more straightforward than one might expect as Elliot is recruited into a network of hackers who are targeting E Corp., a fictional combination of pretty much every unsavory business practice wearing the skin of a technology company. E Corp. is the primary client of the security firm for which Elliot works and are the subject for much of his disdain. Early in the episode he states that whenever he hears their name, he just replaces it in his head with “Evil Corp.” and from that point onward whenever the name is displayed or someone says it that is what the viewer sees or hears as well. On one hand, that element remains a less than subtle aspect of the show, but it does also serve the important purpose of reminding the viewers that everything they see is through the filter of Elliot’s eyes.
Before I wrap up, a few Notes and Nitpicks:
- The director, Niels Arden Oplev, is from Denmark and had previously directed the 2009 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I suppose that accounts for some of the similarities.
- I really need to reiterate how good I feel Rami Malek is as Elliot. He has previously appeared in Need for Speed, the Oldboy remake, The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn: Part 2, the acclaimed TV miniseries The Pacific, the pilot episode of Believe, and 24.
- Bruce Altman plays Terry Colby, an E Corp. CEO that is targeted by Mr. Robot’s hacker group the F Society. Altman is role here feels quite similar to the role he had in Person of Interest, where he played Root’s psychiatrist. Both characters had a sense of smug self-satisfaction and a lack of self-awareness. I mean this as a compliment when I say that Altman was great in both roles.
- Elliot’s narration is technically not targeted towards the audience but towards an imaginary friend that he created but didn’t name. This is, of course, working under the assumption that we are not in fact all his imaginary friend… Here’s hoping that the show doesn’t try to go a St. Elsewhere route, because that could get peculiar.
- I love the fact that all of the episodes use a similar naming format. Though they don’t all implement the mov file format, they are all named like files.
- Who thought that in the age of Scorpion and CSI: Cyber I would get a show that understands what a DDoS attack is, makes references to Tor Networking and its use in illicit activities, and debates the merits of different Linux distributions?
eps1.0_hellofriend.mov makes for a damn fine pilot episode, and leaves me really hyped to see the rest of Mr. Robot. It may be a bit lacking in subtlety, but its tone, themes, and intelligence set it apart from much of its competition. USA might have struck gold on this one. Characters welcome, indeed.
Mr. Robot feels like a radical departure from the types of scripted programs that the USA Network has generally run in the past, and I can't wait to see where the show plans to go from here.