BY ERIK MCCLANAHAN
If you listen to Bret Easton Ellis’ great interview podcast, you’ve no doubt come across his many soliloquies about the supposed “golden age” of TV we’re living in. Even the good shows, he argues, are all about information. Cinema, he says, is still the go-to place for the other, less tactile stuff like atmosphere, tone, mood and the potential for a grand, immersive vision to take over your senses. The truth is, we’re in a golden age of content. It’s only natural, then, that visual storytelling styles will continue merging into exciting new hybrids. TV, whatever that means anymore, is becoming more visual and directed. “Mr. Robot,” a thrilling new series from USA Network which just concluded its first season last week, is not only great television, it’s a bold vision that further blurs the lines between cinema and TV.
Ever since the pilot premiered at SXSW in March, where it won the Audience Award, and premiered on VOD a month early to such great response that a second season was ordered before the first had officially started, there’s been a steady build of attention for this show. And for good reason. USA hasn’t really been known for cutting edge material or morally murky characters, but that’s all changed now that it has in its pocket one of the most compelling and complex protagonists on TV.
On the surface, everyone’s met an Elliot Alderson. He’s the black hoodie-wearing loner at the office who never leaves his cubicle; the guy always staring at his computer; the one who, if he talks at all, says weird, off putting things; the type of person most of us don’t even bother to get to know. As brilliantly played by Rami Malek, he’s the loneliest, most confused genius in the world, but he lets the audience into his singular, often confused perspective. This is a show that understands the power of the unreliable narrator, of putting the viewer so firmly in Elliot’s point of view that we see, hear and feel the world as he does.
Not enough can be said for Malek’s work here. He understands this character in a way that makes it impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. His truly unique look—those big, wide open eyes sunken into cavernous raccoon circles—and even the way he enunciates his words is singular. Just watching him think through a problem or a misplaced memory is transfixing. If you don’t already remember him from smaller roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” or “Short Term 12” or “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” then you will after seeing this star-making turn. This is the best performance on TV right now, and not that matters, but I hope he showered with awards for it.
Part of the thrill of watching “Mr. Robot” is being taken for a ride. It plunges the viewer into the story and characters, never slowing down but still finding time for the occasional digression or another look from a different angle. As Elliot invites us into his world, constantly breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging us watching him, a sense of discomfort may first hit. We are privy to deeply private moments, but all in service of our understanding and, even better, it’s employed organically through the characters. An inescapable voyeuristic pleasure soon sets in as Elliot’s twisted hero’s journey becomes our own living nightmare-cum-sick fantasy of a worldwide financial meltdown. Elliot starts out as a cog at a tech security firm while also moonlighting as a vigilante hacker whose only real connections are those he makes when stealing people’s private information. Once he encounters Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, also wonderful), the leader of an anarchist team of hackers known as fsociety, the real story takes shape. They want to take down E Corp (or, as Elliot prefers, Evil Corp), an evil mega conglomerate, by hacking their system and erasing the world’s debt. The plot alone is a blast to follow, but the twists and turns that really blow the mind are all character-based.
Creator Sam Esmail, a self-proclaimed “film nerd,” is democratic in telling his story, pilfering lovingly from the best of both mediums to create his own style, familiar but taken from the some of the best and reimagined just enough to feel fresh. The obvious touchstones/influences to “Mr. Robot” could be mistaken for a law firm (Fincher, Wachowski & Kubrick), but there’s also dashes of “Taxi Driver,” “Donnie Darko” and “American Psycho” strewn throughout these first 10 episodes. Esmail, who directed the 2014 indie “Comet,” has immediately entered the rising filmmaking star realm. He may still be honing his own voice, but his taste is impeccable and he understands how to pay homage by using familiar elements to create his own thing.
The show is in many ways about information, and while there’s tons of expositional voiceover narration, this is one of the strongest examples in recent memory for the benefits of that tool. Use it correctly, and it deepens the experience. Use it wrongly, and it can ruin a potentially good story. Yet all the info dumps in every episode are leavened by the way it’s communicated. The propulsive, throbbing electronic score by Cliff Martinez protégé Mac Quayle (catch a few killer tracks here) is a big part of the cool veneer of "Mr. Robot," but like Malek, the show just wouldn’t work half as well without it. Across the board, this is a great first season of television made possible by a team of artists firing on all cylinders, from the consistently strong writing, direction, production design, cinematography, camerawork (the framing in particular, is amazing), editing (also very Fincher-like in execution and efficiency) to even the damn opening credits (in SEGA font, no less).
We hope you forgive us, dear readers, for being late to the party on this one. But consider us completely won over by now. I’m here to say that “Mr. Robot” joins “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Tangerine” as the entertainment highlights of the summer. And even further, on this evidence it probably won’t be long before we stop bothering with distinguishing between the mediums. I’ve seen miniseries and TV shows at film festivals, and in turn a lot of indie movies these days look made for TV. “Mr. Robot” is a great TV show, but it’s also great cinema. Regardless of how we define it, Esmail, Malek and co. brought the goods this first season. Season two can’t get here soon enough. [A]
***A FEW SPOILERY THINGS***
(Seriously, don’t read unless you’ve seen the entire first season!)
-As Esmail stated already in a recent EW interview, the show’s biggest influence is “Fight Club.” It’s clear for anyone who knows David Fincher’s film and Chuck Palahniuk’s book that this is that story’s second coming, made official when episode 9 played an instrumental, piano-based cover ofThe Pixies’ “Where’s My Mind” after a big twist that revealed Elliot is in fact Mr. Robot (and his dad, Christian Slater, has been dead all along, a figment of his fractured psyche). Elliot = Tyler Durden; fsociety = Project Mayhem. The look, sound and feel of the show is almost entirely indebted to Fincher, whose other films touched upon here include “The Game,” “The Social Network” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (interestingly enough, the helmer of the original Swedish movie, Neils Arden Oplev, directed the pilot episode of “Mr. Robot”)
—The show is frighteningly bingeable, thanks to cliffhangers that can’t be ignored, especially in the second half of the season. When episode eight ended with the “Empire Strikes Back” twist of Slater being Elliot’s long-thought dead father, I was jumping out of my seat. Only to have my mind destroyed the next episode, when it’s made clear that Elliot is in fact the real Mr. Robot. When the show reveals the even bigger shocker that Slater was dead all along, nothing more than a figment of Elliot’s imagination, I couldn’t believe they pulled off a one-two punch of twists so successfully, but they did. Amazing stuff.
—And even though the finale was more about tying up loose threads and setting up future episodes, it was still a great episode in its own right. I’m really intrigued to learn Tyrell Wellick’s fate. How will his disappearance be explained? And how he’ll be used further down the road, if at all? One thing’s for sure: Martin Wallström, the gifted Swedish actor who portrays Tyrell (the show’s own Patrick Bateman-esque modern yuppie psycho), is now, with Joffrey no longer on “Game of Thrones,” the funnest character to hate on television. Tyrell is the current ne plus ultra of douchebag villains.