An Intriguing Premise and a Strong Performance Anchor Hacker Drama ‘Mr. Robot’

Last week, when USA Network premiered Complications, the show was notable not because of its quality (the medical series is a mostly forgettable summer program) but because it remarked on the new direction USA is experimenting with: smarter (and decidedly bleaker), non-procedural, character-driven dramas. Complications may not have been a the most well-executed example of this, but USA’s other new series, Mr. Robot, will debut Wednesday with an exciting, well-done pilot.

Despite the ridiculous title — and the inherent ridiculousness of characters talking about “hacking” with perfectly straight faces —  Mr. Robot is a serious psychological thriller from Sam Esmail, one that manages to treat its subject matter earnestly, even with the presence of Christian Slater. Mr. Robot‘s main focus is loner genius Elliott (Rami Malek, Short Term 12, The Pacific), a cyber security engineer by day and a self-proclaimed “vigilante hacker” by night. It’s hard to sell the show on its overarching plot — midway through, Slater pops up as, sigh, “Mr. Robot,” a cyber-anarchist who recruits Elliott and introduces him to an underground hacker group. This crew (including Carly Chaikin, better known as Dalia on Suburgatory!) meets in the depths of Coney Island — and the hacker sequences, full of technical jargon that may well be nonsensical for all I know about the subject matter, can induce eye-rolling. But it’s Elliott himself — and Malek behind him — who outshines the plot, and who makes the whole thing worthwhile.

The pilot, and presumably the series, spends a lot of time in Elliott’s head with a voiceover that actually works to enhance the narrative rather than to distract and pull focus away. Elliott’s character is the most impressive feat in Mr. Robot. It would be easier to write him as the kind of socially awkward nerd that we see so often on television — Scorpion, The Big Bang Theory, and now even Stitchers is toying with the female version of this overdone character — but Mr. Robot finds nuances to explore, digging deeper to make sure we always want to know more.

Elliott is smart, but socially crippled in a strange way: when the pilot opens, he is brave and intense enough to casually take down a coffee shop owner who, through hacking, he has discovered is a pedophile whose computer is swarming with child porn. “I wanted to do it AFK, in person,” he says, because he’s “trying to work on my social anxiety.” But when it comes to going to a bar for his friend’s birthday party, he can’t bring himself to step inside. It’s a conflicted social anxiety that, combined with his lack of family or friends (the pilot hints at past abuse), leads Elliott to crying jags on his apartment floor, as well as regular appointments with a therapist (who he lies to and hacks) and a probable drug addiction. (Elliott has a system. There’s a certain amount of morphine he believes he can take per day without being a junkie; this is what many junkies tell themselves.)

MR. ROBOT -- "hellofriend.mov" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot — (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)

The pilot episode, annoyingly titled “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov,” was made available for free viewing in advance of Wednesday’s premiere, presumably because Mr. Robot is such an Internet-heavy show and USA is banking on pre-air excitement (though the  laughable posters on subway platforms aren’t doing much help). It’s a smart move, even if the episode is undeniably clunky at times — as many pilots are, especially USA’s. Sometimes it eschews the show-don’t-tell model to easily explain away Elliott’s personality. “I understand what it’s like to be different. I’m very different, too,” he says at one point; later, his voiceover informs us that he’s good at reading people because he “looks for the worst in everyone.” Other times, the pilot is just trying too hard: Elliott’s internal monologue waxes poetic about Steve Jobs profiting off “the backs of children”; he talks about how “our heroes are counterfeit” as images of Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby flash on the screen; there are references to the evilness of Black Friday, prescription pills, and even The Hunger Games.

But Rami Malek makes all of this work. Malek is an actor who has been sidelined for a while, but he steps into Elliott without a hitch, displaying a wide-eyed loneliness and a knack for delivering ranty dialogue in a believable, rather than cheesy, way. Malek makes Elliott’s complications — the disjointed and untrustworthy narration, the drug use, the delusions, the awkward interactions — into something real and engaging. He’s an unlikable character that you’ll root for.

It’s a good pilot, one that’s cool and confident, with skillful writing that could smooth out the wrinkles as the series goes on. But the big question is whether Mr. Robot will sustain such a strange, psychological, and hacker-heavy narrative for an entire season — it’s a little worrisome that only the pilot was sent to critics — or quickly crash on its own momentum.