BY BRENDEN GALLAGHER
Don't be the idiot who missed out on this summer's surprise hit.
After the disappointing return of True Detective, TV junkies were left casting about for the next show to obsess over. Sure, there were niche series here and there that drew audiences, like UnReal and Rectify. But, we went most of the summer without a show to unite Twitter in obsessive analysis. Just as summer started drawing to a close, the show of the summer finally hit, and that show is Mr. Robot.
If you haven’t caught Mr. Robot yet, you have until 10 p.m. tonight to catch up for the season finale. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you missed it. The show came out of nowhere and appears on USA, a network previously known for brisk dramas starring chiseled men in suits and aviator glasses. Mr. Robot is a paranoid look at the ills of the millennial generation through the eyes of a drug-addled hacker genius. The show’s plot takes on a laundry list of issues plucked from the headlines of Vice and Slate. The surveillance state, Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street, social media, online dating, corporate responsibility, and bank bailouts pop in and out of the narrative, as the plot twists and turns. And unlike many shows based on current events, Mr. Robot never loses its keen dramatic sensibility, as Elliot (Rami Malek) barrels towards a collision with Evil Corp: the Google-meets-Amazon-meets-Wal-Mart-meets-Bank-of-America uber-conglomerate that controls the dystopian present.
Even if you don’t have time to binge-watch the whole thing before tonight’s finale, this is a show you can’t miss. Here are 10 reasons why you need to catch up on Mr. Robot ASAP.
This show isn’t afraid of plot twists.
A hallmark of the great shows of the last few years has been their careful, even labored plotting. Mad Men was notorious for loglines like “Don makes a new connection and Peggy contemplates a decision.” Mr. Robot isn’t afraid to move at the pace of an action movie and throw in the occasional soap opera twist. The show is so sure of itself that it is willing to throw in a long lost family member and prison break along with its meditation on the Internet economy.
The danger with a show about computers is devolving into a dull slog of keyboards and thumb drives. With its willingness to go from zero to batshit in the blink of an eye, Mr. Robot has made sure that it is many things, but never boring.
Rami Malek's performance is twitchy, explosive perfection
Mr. Robot relies extensively on its star Rami Malek, who plays Elliot Anderson, our hero, our narrator, our moral compass (or lack thereof), and maybe even our villain. Usually, a role this meaty is reserved for a proven commodity: Think Walter White, Don Draper, or Alicia Florrick. Here, Malek succeeds because of his youthful energy. Though his performance is detached and restrained, there is palpable intensity bubbling beneath the surface. His eyes flicker. He tweaks. He dives into diatribes that last until he exhausts himself. As Elliot, Malek is a time bomb with a pressure valve. We see little releases with each episode, but we still fully expect that eventually, he’s going to blow.
Finally a show knows how to use Christian Slater
In the ’90s, Christian Slater was a full-fledged movie star, but the following decade was not so kind. Slater earned a reputation as a show killer as series after series of his flamed out after only a handful of episodes. Though America hasn’t had an appetite for Slater as a leading man on network dramas, he seems to have found the right tonal match with Mr. Robot. Slater comes by a sinister edge naturally, which served him well in films like True Romance, and continues to work for him here. As a mysterious hacker who falls somewhere between mentor and nemesis to our hero, and goes by the name Mr. Robot, Slater’s darkness finally seems to be working in his favor.
Current events matter
Very few shows on the air actually try to address current events. When they do, they often do so from a preachy middle-aged perspective. Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous are more often punching bags than legitimate plot points on TV. Mr. Robot is deeply immersed in current events. Data collection, too big too fail, and cybersecurity aren’t just buzzwords on this series, they are concepts that are meditated upon, even obsessed over, as the story twists and turns. At points, the series has even been eerily prescient. An early episode plot point bears a striking resemblance to the Ashley Madison hack and the series finale was pre-empted due to similarities to the tragic shootings in Virginia.
Though at times it is uncanny and uncomfortable, Mr. Robot’s interaction with and understanding of current events makes the experience of watching the show that much richer.
The series offers an authentic vision of New York
Thanks to an expanded tax credit, New York continues to see increased film and video production. Though many projects shoot in New York, there isn’t a wide variety in the New Yorks we’re presented with. We are familiar with the high-class New York of The Good Wife and Revenge. We’ve seen more than enough of the tragically hip New York of Girls. Mr. Robot gives us a New York we rarely see. We visit gritty neighborhoods in Brooklyn beyond Williamsburg and Greenpoint. We take the Q all the way to Coney Island. We see scenes staged inside subway stations, on stoops, and straddling dingy street corners. Mr. Robot offers the New York of the 99 percent, a New York that looks like the one where New Yorkers actually live.
The show gets the Internet
When most shows discuss the Internet, it makes you cringe. Dramas like The Newsroom and The Good Wife misunderstand social media, online dating, and pretty much any other Internet-related subject so deeply that it takes you right out of the show. Sorkin memorably expected us to believe a 25-year-old thought “LOL” meant “lots of love” on an episode of The Newsroom, but even though this is one of the most memorably Internet fails in recent TV history, it is far from the only one. Intentionally hip shows, on the other hand, often labor over their Internet bits, taking great pains to let you know that their characters not only get it, but they also like it on Instagram.
One of the pleasures of Mr. Robot is that it gets the Internet, but does so casually. Though server farms, databases, and user profiles are the treasure being fought over, the show handles its tech-heavy content efficiently. Just like in our real lives, the Internet is a integral part of these characters’ lives that doesn’t need to be treated with awe or fear. Mr. Robot understands something that every millennial has understood for a long time: In 2015, we live our lives online.
The masterful editing sucks you into the story
The modern, independent spirit behind the writing of the show is mirrored in its post-production. The editors have taken a bold approach with the series thus far, adjusting the rhythm of the edit to match Elliot. During intense moments, we see Elliot’s fractured psyche in action. Jump cuts and a frenetic pace underscore his attempt to piece together an attack on E Corp. In Elliot’s calmer moments, we get the sense that he is lost deep in his own mind. The pace of the editing slows down; the shots get wider; the soundtrack takes over, washing onto the shores of the dialogue. The editing doesn’t just enforce Eliott’s point of view, it brings us deep inside his mind.
Paranoia feeds the suspense
Paranoia is a tricky device to deploy well. If your hero thinks everyone is out to get them, they can quickly lose credibility. We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf, and a naturally skeptical audience will resort to eye-rolling pretty quickly when protagonists see a threat at every turn. But, when the plot feels earned and suspense is carefully maintained, paranoia can be a powerful tool. Because we aren’t sure who’s after Elliot, or even if the people he sees coming for him actually exist, paranoia works incredibly well in Mr. Robot. Thanks to the careful work of the show to get us looking at things from Elliot’s point of view, we eventually start to share his paranoid approach to the world. Like Elliot, we start to believe that anything can happen. When a creative team can convince the audience to look carefully around every corner, it can get away with anything. Thankfully, Mr. Robot has taken advantage of this privilege and hasn’t yet abused it.
There is no 'good'
One of the most annoying things about prestige dramas is their pre-occupation with being “good.” If you had a dollar for every time Colin Farrell wondered allowed if he was a good man this season on True Detective, you could pay off your student loans. Even Breaking Bad, brilliant as it was, often took pause to navel-gaze at Walter White’s boundless capacity for evil.
Early on in Mr. Robot, we learn this series doesn’t give a shit who the good guys are. As Elliot and Mr. Robot contemplate destroying one of E Corp’s data centers, they debate whether they are willing to kill innocent bystanders to achieve their goals. This debate hangs over the rest of the series, as we watch Elliot make choices that cause others suffering, and we are reminded that you can never be sure who the good guys are, even when you’re the hero of the story.
Mr. Robot is your Corporate Revenge fantasy
In addition to the artistic and structural strength of Mr. Robot, watching the show is also cathartic. The villains are the banks, the pharmaceutical companies, and the corporate behemoths that poison our land and sell tainted natural resources back to us. Ultimately, the villain of the series is every powerful entity that makes us feel powerless, every corporation whose personhood makes us less. E Corp: The soulless conglomerate that owns this world is involved in everything from natural resource extraction to student loans. It is everything you hate.
Even in the moments when Mr. Robot isn’t at the top of its game, the show is fun to watch because there’s a chance that the corporate raiders will get their comeuppance. No one went to jail for the financial collapse in real life, but that doesn’t mean we can’t watch Elliot and company get the revenge we wish we could have every time we get another credit card bill.