Mr Robot's pop culture riffing makes genius television

USA Network

USA Network


The first rule of Mr Robot is: you do not talk about Fight Club. Or Taxi Driver, American Psycho, The Matrix or even Trainspotting.

Look, it's probably best if you don't talk about any ultra-stylised - or ultra-stylish - films from the late 90s or earlier that most millennials won't have seen, okay?

Because if you do talk about these things when talking about Mr Robot it will only make you feel old and busted and severely hamper your enjoyment of the show. Which, being the breakout critical and commercial success that it is, can only be considered as the new hotness.

Buffering from the States to little ol' here took a while (it wrapped up its run a couple of weeks back) and now, finally, Lightbox has the entire first season up for streaming.

So what's it about and why has everyone gone bananas for it?

Mr Robot is about Elliot, a druggie computer hacker who struggles with social anxiety disorder, severe delusions and the inability to wear anything other than a black hoodie.

By day he works as a security engineer for a cybersecurity firm and by night he conspires to hack their biggest client, the all-pervasive multi-national conglomerate E Corp.

This company is a sort of mash-up of massive financial institutions, Apple and Google and seems to provide many services, including banking, smartphones and everyday cloud-based services.

If Google's famous motto was "Don't be evil", then E Corp has gone the other way with its approach, at least in Elliot's ill mind, which sees him referring to the company as Evil Corp. His failure to connect with people in the real world leads him to connect with people in the virtual one. Not through friendly chats or witty tweets, but rather by hacking his way into their email and social media accounts and devouring all their personal info.

By scouring emails and online profiles he vets his pal's potential partners, delves into his psychiatrist's deepest secrets and acts as a kind of nerdy, slightly creepy Superman by going about righting wrongs.

His hacktivism sees him taking down everyone from cheating husbands to child pornographers. Eventually, a shady, scarf-wearing fellow recruits him into an Anonymous-type organisation called fsociety intent on bringing down the system, man. And from there it's a wild ride through the best parts of every movie you've ever seen.

It was the great miserablist Morrissey who said, "talent borrows, genius steals". It's a clever thing to say and even cleverer when you learn he cribbed it wholesale from Oscar Wilde. Going by that metric Mr Robot is the most genius television show ever made. The series is not just shameless in stealing from its sources, it's positively gleeful. From major things like, oh I don't know, say, its big twist, right through to little things like the reworked Sega font in its logo.

It runs with the idea any good idea is fair game. And in a lot of ways that's fair enough. After all, some of the greatest hits of the past 30 years rely on hooks, riffs or beats sampled from other songs and then reworked into something fresh, new and exciting.

I'd argue that what Mr Robot is doing is sampling ideas. Nicking the best of the best pop culture has to offer before remixing and presenting the result as something fresh.

Generally, its glitzy repackaging is good enough to pull off this blatant photocopying. Though there are times when it gets a little on the nose - soundtracking a pivotal scene with the Pixies' Where Is My Mind? has to be the worst offender of season one - eliciting groans instead of the show's desired response.

Despite the foibles of its failings, the show remains eminently watchable. A lot of this is down to Rami Malek who portrays the troubled Elliot with a bug-eyed intensity and the always fantastic Christian Slater who revels in chewing the scenery as the all-or-nothing mastermind behind fsociety.

It's also incredibly well made; slick, arty and well-paced. But most of all, the show is just damn entertaining.

There's a fine line between being edgy and being try-hard. From its vantage point on the shoulders of giants Mr Robot has found it.