Paranoid Android: ‘Mr. Robot’ is basic cable’s best show

 

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Mr. Robot title card (USA).

The first ten minutes of USA’s new program, Mr. Robot, introduce Elliot as a plausible schizophrenic; he opens the show by narrating to the viewer: “You’re only in my head. We have to remember that. Shit. It’s actually happening. I’m talking to an imaginary person.”

Played with a quiet charisma by Rami Malek (The Master), he compliments the owner of a Brooklyn coffee shop on his fiber-optic speed Internet. In the same breath, Elliot drops that he knows about his child porn business on the Deep Web and that he’s not interested in a bribe to stay quiet.

On its own, the opening scene is almost a put-on; it pitches a different show entirely that would be more conventional to the basic-cable brand – a weekly procedural of a vigilant hacker who works cybersecurity by day and cleans up the riff-raff out of New York City by night.

The pilot episode, directed by Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), inverts this would-be paradigm to create something altogether more haunting and poignant. At work, Elliot stumbles upon “fsociety,” an anarchist hacker collective and pastiche of the real-world Anonymous hacker coalition. The group is poised to launch an attack that will destabilize the ubiquitous E Corp (think Apple meets Amazon meets Bank of America all rolled into one) and delete all student debt from the books.

Elliot’s social anxiety is tangible; he’s tinged with some haphephobia, constantly sidestepping and avoiding contact with strangers. He ambles down the NYC sidewalks with his head down, like a messiah in a hoodie. In his Chinatown apartment, Elliot occupies himself with his fish QWERTY, passively socializing with strangers and friends through his computer by hacking into their personal lives without their knowledge, and doing lines of morphine. Characters welcome!

Although Elliot shies away from outwardly expressing many human emotions, he’s hardly the most android-like character. E Corp employee Tyrell Wellick (played masterfully by Swedish actor Martin Wallström), who’s prone to violent outburst and perverted antics, wears workplace cordiality like an alien pretending to belong in corporate life.

It’s easy to knock basic cable channels misusing brilliant material. Even TNT executives loved Breaking Bad, but thought it’d be more compelling if Walter White were counterfeiting money.

In the wrong hands, Mr. Robot would be more (ahem) hacky, lose its balancing act and fall into the graveyard of other failed programs about computer wizardry. There are countless terrible versions of Mr. Robot, but showrunner Sam Esmail has immense respect for telling the story (coding isn’t exactly a spectator sport, so it’s not the easiest thing to do) and a sincere love for its characters.

The show has garnered attention for its inimitable style for both (a) depicting hacking in a forthright, accurate way and (b) inadvertently mirroring the headlines. This season’s plot has been compared to the recent Ashley Madison hack that leaked millions of names of its married users seeking a side piece. The season finale, originally slated for last Wednesday, was delayed due to a scene that mirrored the shooting in Roanoke, Virginia last week. TV critic Andy Greenwald at Grantland wrote an insightful piece defending USA’s choice. Tonight, the final episode will air on USA without an edit.

This story was originally published for The Daily Emerald on Sept. 2, 2015 at http://www.dailyemerald.com/2015/09/02/mr-robot-and-the-paranoid-androids-of-basic-cables-best-show/

More stories I’ve written for the Emerald can be found here.

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