Is Mr. Robot the Best New Show of Recent Years?

The very existence of Mr. Robot is amazing in more ways than one. Firstly, it’s a surprise that Mr. Robot was picked up by the USA Network—a network known for light, often formulaic shows—and also that they had so much faith in it, they renewed it for a second year before the first episode even aired. It’s a pleasure as a viewer when a TV series comes along on any network that forgoes the usual formula and slip into a hard-to-define style, but it’s especially impressive for a network like USA, which is so risk-adverse. Mr. Robot is definitely an atypical show.

 It has to be said that the show is a success for USA. Aside from being one of the best reviewed programs of the year, it’s also a strong ratings grabber for a non-HBO cable show. It’s averaged 1.4 million viewers per week for the 18-49 age group. It’s been the number one scripted cable show on Wednesday nights, ever since it debuted on June 24th, and was the overall second highest rated scripted show of the summer (Just behind Fear the Walking Dead.) Not bad for the freshman year. Most shows don’t get into their groove until well into the first-year, but Mr. Robot came out of the gate with gusto in the first episode.

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The story of Mr. Robot follows socially awkward Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), who works as a cyber-security expert by day and a cyber-vigilante at night, hacking people he deems evil and blackmailing them into stopping their illegal or immoral behavior. Elliot is recruited by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to join f-society, a group of cyber anarchists who have a grand plan to erase all debt in the US with one massive hack. The 10-episode season builds toward the enacting of the devastating hack, while introducing a bunch of side characters and subplots which complicate things for Elliot. As the year rolls along, we learn that almost nothing is what it originally seems.

Mr. Robot draws from a number of famous films for its source material. Fight Club is the most obvious, but if you look, you’ll see the influence of other movies. For instance, Mr. Robot has a young, socially inept New York loner as a type of justice-seeking, anti-establishment vigilante, much as we saw in Taxi Driver.  There are also strong echoes of A Clockwork Orange, A Beautiful Mind and Hackers.

What’s so fresh and intriguing about Mr. Robot is that the whole thing is seen through the eyes of a delusional drug-user, making him into what is known as an “unreliable narrator”’, so what we see happening on screen is screwed by Elliot’s Dissociative Personality Disorder and drug induced imaginings. Elliot doesn’t remember who his sister is until she reminds him. He speaks to his dead father, who he doesn’t even remember is his father. Elliot has a hard time deciphering reality from his confused fantasies. Therefore, seeing as Elliot is the narrator, or our ‘way in’ to the story, this makes us unable to take what we’re seeing as written-in-stone. More often than not, we’re retroactively shown that what we saw earlier what not exactly what we thought we were seeing.  Elliot’s perception is altered by drugs and mental illness, and since we see the world (of the show) as he sees it, we can never trust what we’re seeing. The facts are finally filled in by other characters and Elliot is as surprised as we are when he learns the truth.

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Actually, not all the twists are a total surprise to the fans and one of the big criticisms of the show is that the big swerve regarding the identity of the eponymous Mr. Robot was predicted by anyone who ever saw Fight Club. Many (if not most) fans guessed that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s Tyler Durden—merely a figment of his fragmented personality. It became rather obvious as the episodes passed, since no one ever acknowledged the two of them at the same time. The show’s producer Sam Esmail claims that the twist was meant to be figured out. Whether or not this is true or just a rewriting of history to dilute the reality that everyone figured it out, the fact is that the plot still works, even if you know what’s coming. In fact, if they had told us from the pilot that Mr. Robot was not real, the show would have been just as good. Also, there was an unexpected extra level to this twist, finding out that Mr. Robot was Elliot’s late father. Later, in a sort of Beautiful Mind moment, Elliot’s dad is joined by Elliot’s late mother and his younger self to encourage him, despite his realization that they were not real.

There is a wonderfully cerebral and non-condescending aspect to the show that makes it stand out from most other programs. It dares the viewer to keep up, rather than laying things out in detailed exposition. Personally, I don’t know how realistic the hacking stuff is on the show, but the compelling storyline allows me to just accept that everything the hackers do here is possible and simply enjoy it.  

 Rami Malek is the find of the season as the disturbed Elliot. He is terrific at acting both detached and panicked at the same time. His deadpan facial expressions say a lot by doing so little. His dispassionate, monotone narration is the perfect guide to Elliot’s chaotic world because of its ironic and inappropriate calmness. I’m not sure how well he’ll do in other roles after this, but the particular unemotional style he’s adopted here is perfect for the role. He absolutely nails it! The supporting cast is also excellent.  

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The show is also very timely, following on the heels of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement, and coinciding with the Sony Hack and the Ashely Madison situation. Season two will probably continue with its straight-out-of-the headlines style, and may possibly be lucky enough to predict a few more events that will coincide with the second season.

The biggest flaw in this show, which keeps it a tad short of greatness, is that it doesn’t trust itself to hold on to that coveted 18-25 audience through the power of the script and performances alone. Underestimating its young viewers, the Show -Runners feel the need to add unnecessary scenes which they think are ‘edgy’, such as one character’s enjoyment of sadism (displayed by beating up homeless people) or having a scene take place in the bathroom while a woman is defecating during the conversation. The series spends far too much time delving into every possible type of sexual escapade (straight, gay, bondage and even rape) but these scenes do not improve the story; they detract from it. These sequences might have been added in the hopes of creating some controversy that will lead to extra media coverage, but in this day and age, there is nothing shocking enough about these scenes to incite any reaction beyond “Why did they include that scene? It has nothing to do with anything!”    

Most of these scenes involve Martin Wallstrom as Tyrell, a character who is well-played by the actor but written with an all-over-the-place inconsistency. He is set up in the series finale for a major role in year two, as the new face behind the mask of the f-society spokesman. Hopefully, his story will be more well thought out in future, and not merely a figure slipped in to be ‘edgy’. On the plus side, his Lady Macbeth of a wife is wonderfully cold and calculating. It’s frightening to think that she’s got a kid now. She bears watching closely next season. 

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Sadly, the season closed on one of the weakest of the 10 episodes. The final episode really didn’t add anything new to the storyline, nor did it answer anything. We see that the hack was initiated and chaos has begun, but this is something that could have been done at the beginning of the next season. The finale posed a few more questions (Was that Tyrell under the mask? Who was at the door at the end? Does Evil Corp know who was behind the hack?) to set up the second year, but the episode essentially played out like an extended after-credits sequence for a Marvel film. The best part of the finale was the actual after credits scene, which left us to wonder what the heck is up with B.D. Wong’s character? Whose side is he on? Which is the ‘real’ him…the transgender anarchist or the dapper, corporate schemer?

Despite these flaws, Mr. Robot is an excellent show, and far surpasses a vast majority of what else we see on television today. For a freshman season, it’s an outstanding achievement. I can’t yet say without reservation that it’s a great show, because it needs to works on certain issues. Most importantly, it needs to learn to trust its audience and believe that we will return week after week for the engrossing story, and not for some needlessly kinky, disconnected scenes that slow the plot down.  Still, it’s the best summer show this year (Sorry about that Fear the Walking Dead) and the most unique TV project in years. It has potential greatness written all over it and is one of these shows that changes the rules of the game. I hope it spawns many more clever, innovative new shows in the future.