BY MEREDITH BLAKE
USA's evolution took a major leap forward this summer with the premiere of "Mr. Robot," a paranoid, disorienting drama about technology and digital consumerism reminiscent of "Taxi Driver," "Fight Club" and "The Social Network" rather than the sunny one-hour shows such as "Royal Pains."
(Warning for those who haven't caught up on Season 1: Here be spoilers.)
Created by Sam Esmail, the series stars Rami Malek as Elliot, a drug-addicted, socially awkward programming whiz working a day job at a cyber-security firm who gets lured into a shadowy hacking collective run by the mysterious Mr. Robot, played by Christian Slater.
With its spookily timely story lines and a stunning late-season twist, "Mr. Robot" generated rave reviews and considerable buzz, and suddenly turned USA into a serious player in the prestige TV game.
It's also the rare example of Hollywood getting technology -- and more specifically, hackers -- right, which may account for the chatter it's generated online. "If you're making it about the hacking, then you've made a grave mistake," Esmail said Friday at New York Comic Con, where he appeared with cast members Malek, Slater, Portia Doubleday and Carly Chaikin.
"One of the things that we always knew making this show, it was not about the hacking, it was about the characters. That goes for anything -- when you're making a medical drama, a lawyer [show] -- I don't know half the stuff they're saying on 'Law and Order.' But if it's about the people, you get the emotional beats, that's the most important part of it."
Another common mistake, Esmail said, is the assumption that "if you show a person typing it's going to get boring really quickly, and so we have to force these cheesy graphics and CGI because audiences are too stupid."
One notable exception to that rule? "The Social Network," which he says was "very respectful in the way it treated technology."
Esmail describes the collaboration with USA as "the perfect marriage," and says the network gave him almost complete creative freedom, even though he'd had very little television experience prior to making "Mr. Robot." "I had no business being a show runner," he said bluntly.
No doubt the network knew the series would get viewers talking. In a twist straight out of "Fight Club," "The Sixth Sense" or "The Empire Strikes Back" (take your pick), it's revealed that Mr. Robot is in fact Elliot's deceased father -- or more accurately, Mr. Robot is a vision in Elliot's mind of his deceased father. And yes, Slater will be returning for season 2, despite being a figment of Elliot's imagination.
Both Malek and Slater knew of the twist early on, when Esmail gave them the option of finding out.
"I said, 'Tell me everything right away,'" said Malek. "He said, 'Is that going to be helpful for you? Because it could be interesting to watch you be surprised.' After he told me I was like, not with that many surprises."
Also contributing to the buzz around "Mr. Robot" was the uncanny way in which it seemed to predict the headlines. The show's 10-episode run coincided with a well-publicized hack of Ashley Madison, a website designed for people looking to have affairs.
In the pilot episode, Elliot threatens to expose Ollie (Ben Rappaport) who's been using the site to cheat on his girlfriend. Malek said he recently rewatched the pilot and was stunned to hear his character mention Ashley Madison, which at the time of filming he'd thought was just the name of a girl.
"I was like, oh my god, Sam predicted that a year before it happened," Malek said.
Other similarities were more disturbing: On the same day the season finale was scheduled to air, two journalists were murdered on the air in Roanoke, Va. USA postponed the broadcast a week because the episode included a similar scene.
"One of the things we say in the writers room is that we want to write a show of this time. It’s as if we’re making a period show of today," said Esmail, joking that perhaps he should write an episode featuring a world peace parade.
As for looking into the future of the show, which will be back for a second season in 2016, Esmail was mum about details but promised that things are only going to get darker -- if such a thing is even possible.
"I'm going to have to throw some jokes in," he said.