June 25, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Mr. Robot”


MR. ROBOT:  Wednesday 10PM on USA – Potential DVR Alert

There are networks, especially in the pay-TV universe, that play the instant-renewal game, announcing as soon as a new show has premiered, or sometimes even before, that another season has been ordered.  It’s a PR move, for the most part, and sometimes only semi-legitimate, as where the series had a quiet 2-year order from the start.  USA Network, though, hasn’t historically engaged in that practice, so the network’s renewal of MR. ROBOT a few hours before it could earn any linear ratings (it’s been widely available online and on VOD for several weeks) made the statement a bit more emphatic.  And in fact, the pilot for Mr. Robot is by far the most distinctive piece of programming USA has aired–well, very possibly ever, although whether it can stay that way is something we’ll find out over time.

The key influence on Mr. Robot is Fight Club, with a dose of Taxi Driver added for good measure, and those aren’t the sources we normally associate with a middle-of-the-road network.  It comes by its oddness honestly:  the series was created by Sam Esmail, whose most notable previous work was the little-seen Comet, a plane-of-reality-jumping romance that didn’t get far beyond the festival circuit.  His protagonist here is Elliott (Rami Malek), a young man whose mastery of computers is fueled by bitterness, paranoia and a twisted need for human contact that he can’t abide in the physical world.

Elliot’s McJob is with a cybersecurity firm, whose main client is the all-powerful E Corp (think Apple crossed with Citicorp), which he has adjusted to Evil Corp.  Elliott barely manages to maintain a friendship with Angela (Portia Doubleday), who works with him and has known him since childhood, he self-medicates his anxiety and depression with morphine, and he holds onto his job only because of his gift for instinctively navigating the computer cosmos.  Elliott’s emotional life, such as it is, is invested in a form of cyberstalking:  he hacks into the lives of everyone he knows and everyone they know, and sometimes total strangers, and takes vigilante action against the wrongdoing he finds, which ranges from distribution of child pornography to being a douchebag who doesn’t tell the women he’s dating (including Elliot’s therapist) that he’s married.  Elliott equates the rampant dishonesty he finds online with the state of society as a whole, as Evil Corp treats its customers like his targets treat the people around them.

The action of the pilot, written by Esmail and directed by Niels Arden Oplev (he did the non-Fincher version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), kicks in when Elliot finds himself recruited by a mysterious hacking group headed by the man who calls himself Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who will only communicate in person, masquerades as homeless, professes to be aiming at the takedown of Evil Corp and its ilk, and may or may not exist.  Elliot follows Mr. Robot’s instructions and frames a particularly obnoxious corporate executive for one of the group’s hacks, but everyone’s motives and even identity is in question.

Esmail’s pilot script is tight and intriguing, effectively framing the world through Elliot’s very particular point of view, and Oplev’s direction is stylized without going over the top, making use of props like subway posters and a dingy Coney Island ferris wheel (for a meeting between Elliot and Mr Robot that’s surely meant to recall The Third Man) to create an existential, threatening vision of New York.  Malek manages the difficult task of conveying Elliot’s emotional limitations and antisocial behavior while remaining engaging, and Slater is used in short doses that suit his own form of stylization.

The pilot for Mr. Robot works in a big way, but the real challenge will be to sustain its tone once it has to deliver weekly episodes with normal commercial breaks (the pilot was shown with just a few minutes of ads), developing the mystery while not softening Elliot.  (His decision late in the pilot to adopt a dog mistreated by one of his cybervictims was worrisome.)  And even if it can keep the quality up, there’s a real question as to whether fans of Royal Pains and even Suits will commit to going this dark.  For the moment, though, USA has successfully hit the mark it’s been aiming at for several seasons, creating a show that doesn’t feel like its usual product at all.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."