BY MATT ZOLLER SEITZ
Every program has a bug. Every person has a bug. Every TV show has a bug. The most important thing about bug-hunting, Mr. Robot tells us, is not locating and dealing with the bug, but understanding the conditions that allowed the bug to exist. A bug is a message, sometimes a distress signal, embedded within the program, and it exists in order to be discovered, so that the reasons for its existence can be understood.
What’s Mr. Robot’s bug? I ask because it has one, and it’s preventing the program (how convenient for this review that the word program is a synonym for show!) from functioning at its fullest artistic potential. I admire this show. I am engrossed in it. I might continue watching it even if it were tedious or stupid, for its committed performances, its surprising but always spot-on song choices (Neil Diamond in the pilot sealed my love for the series), Tim Ives’s geometrically off-center compositions, Mac Quayle’s retro ’80s-synth score, and the dense, playful sound design. (If you can watch Mr. Robot with headphones on, you absolutely should.) But there’s something not quite there about it, and it’s frustrating.
I suspect the bug is Mr. Robot himself — a character initially presented as a pontificating, hot-tempered revolutionary played by Christian Slater, a V-type (as in V for Vendetta) then revealed by our humble narrator, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), to be a hallucinated vision of the now-dead father who pushed him out of a window as a kid. This series about a computer hacker/revolutionary/mentally ill man-child is pretty openly catering to aficionados of Cinema de Dudebro, referencing a number of films and filmmakers that absolutely pass muster as art while also just happening to look and sound frickin’ awesome when you put them up on that 57-inch plasma screen with surround sound that hangs on a wall opposite your black leather couch. (Insulting, sure — but also autobiographical. I still have the TV, but a girlfriend convinced me to sell the couch.) Taxi Driver,American Psycho, The Matrix, the complete works of Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher — you name it, Mr. Robot probably carries it deep within its aesthetic DNA, along with the original Star Wars trilogy, which it exuberantly embraces in episodes eight and nine, when we learn that Elliot’s fellow hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is his sister and Mr. Robot is their father. Creator Sam Esmail is so fluent in this core group of Pop Art classics that he can reference them in a somewhat casual, off-kilter way, as when the opening scene of the second episode ends with a music cue from Kubrick’s 1975 period drama Barry Lyndon, or when episode nine — the one where Elliot learns that he’s been taking orders from a psychic manifestation of his dead father this whole time, à la Fight Club’s Tyler Durden and Elvis in True Romance, which starred Slater — plays the hero off with a tenderhearted acoustic piano cover of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” the curtain-closer from Fight Club.
Here’s the thing, though: As much fun as this sort of thing is, and as much comfort and joy as it might give “fan theory” junkies who see movies mainly as puzzles to be solved and conquered rather than engaged with as emotional and aesthetic objects, I could not be less interested in the outward manifestations of Elliot’s breakdown and denial — not because I don’t care about Elliot (I do care very much, mainly because of the hilariously dry narration and Malek’s uniquely tortured performance), but because all this is the least original thing about Mr. Robot.
The series is brilliantly executed, for the most part. It might be the second-most voluptuous feast for the senses to air on American television this year, after Hannibal. I get a chill anticipating which frame they’ll emblazon with the show’s 1980s arcade-game logo (I am always surprised and delighted), and I look forward to all the little flourishes, visual, aural, and musical, that Esmail and his directors (including Jim McKay, an unsung hero of American independent film) smuggle into each scene — such as how, in that long shot of the Coney Island pier where Elliot is “pushed,” the top rail is positioned with the frame so that it perfectly aligns with the waterline, turning the whole stretch of railing into a grid of skinny horizontal azure rectangles.
But none of this is as fascinating, as original, as urgent, as necessary, as the show’s casual critique of what modern society has become. What initially captivated me about Mr. Robot was its vision of life, which was not new or especially deep, but nonetheless bracing because it was being presented on a major commercial cable channel, in an offhand way that just seemed to assume that large numbers of people would shake their heads and think, Yes, this is right, this is what life is like; this series understands my disquiet. Elliot is the first network protagonist to talk about the “invisible hand” of capitalism forcing people into slots and creating “prisons of debt” (an idea developed with vastly more moral urgency here than in Fight Club, the film that Esmail’s “erase all debt” plotline comes from). Although Malek’s character has a nondescript, Waspy name, his very presence diversifies commercial TV because his chiseled Egyptian-American face and gigantic Albert Einstein eyes make a statement that’s much more powerful than the words that appear on the character’s work badge (Esmail is Egyptian-American, too). And the fact that his uniform — his superhero outfit, practically — is a black hoodie sends a statement as well. I can’t think of the last American TV drama that was so defiantly rooted in the perspective of a cultural and psychological outsider — somebody who was participating in the circus of social media and late capitalism and virtual existence not because he enjoyed it but because he was conditioned to participate by virtue of having been born into it, and knew this, and resented it. “Our choices were premade for us a long time ago,” he says. I like how the show sees the outsider in almost every character and occasionally feels for the very worst of them — even Shayla’s drug dealer and rapist, Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), whose every “bro” lands like the promise of a punch (“People who are violent get that way because they can’t communicate,” Mr. Robot reminds Elliot); and Martin Wallström’s hateful scumbag one-percenter Tyrell Wellick, who rehearses his “Please hire me as CTO” speech over and over before approaching the board, not just because he’s nervous but because English is not his first language. Having BD Wong’s Whiterose turn out to be a transgender character was movingly right, and would have resonated with all the show’s other nods to outsiderdom even if it hadn’t closed with Whiterose in cis male drag mode at a fat-cat party post-meltdown, listening to a harpist play “Nearer My God to Thee” (the final encore from the Titanic’s deck band) and talking about Nero fiddling and Rome burning.
I have no idea how the show’s cultural and technological jokes and references will date (probably quickly, and badly; that’s how this sort of thing tends to go), but I love them. They’re as precise and hilarious as the ones on HBO’s Silicon Valley, and much more despairing because Mr. Robot is a drama about alienation and psychosis and rebellion rather than a comedy about callow young dudes trying to get rich. Ben Parker (Ollie Parker), cheating boyfriend of Elliot’s childhood-trauma buddy Angela (Portia Doubleday), spits out cringe-inducing, in-crowd locutions like a ketchup dispenser (“We have this Groupon for four at Morton’s”; “I’ll tweet, but only if I like it”).
This is the true heart of the show: the continual tug-of-war between conformity and outsiderhood, self-awareness and narcoticized consumption, idiosyncrasy and normalcy (whatever normal even means; on Mr. Robot it sounds like a control word). Is it enough to make fun of a world where students carry tens of thousands in debt throughout their lives to become certified for jobs they probably won’t get anyway, or that will pay miserly freelance wages? Is it enough to joke about hearting things on Instagram and drinking lattes from Starbucks and going to Marvel movies like a good American middle-class zombie? Is that rebellion? Or is that just a game we play to pass time on the cradle-to-grave assembly line?
The more you listen to Elliot, the more likely you are to have those kinds of thoughts, and they’re not bad thoughts to have, tritely obvious as they might sound. The reflex to dismiss such questions as “trite” is smug, and is itself evidence of social conditioning. It’s great that a TV show is obsessing over this week after week, and making the ruminations uncomfortable-funny rather than ha-ha funny. It’s great that a TV show is weaving in footage of protests about economic disparity and consumers getting fat on processed, mass-produced corporate food. It’s great that all this is filtered through a hero as complex, wounded, eloquent, and observant as Elliot, as horrible as many of his deeds might be. He is, after all, a revolutionary. When’s the last time a major TV series was built around a guy who wanted to burn it all down, and gave you no choice but to find him likable?
This is what I want more of from Mr. Robot. Not “big reveals” of who somebody’s sister or dad is, or exactly why a character is so sad and depressed. (Orson Welles kept insisting that the end of Citizen Kane did not actually “explain” Kane, but no one listened to him.) I am not particularly interested in finding out what’s real and what’s not, and what happened to Tyrell, and whether Elliot/Mr. Robot had anything to do with it; and I am not particularly interested in seeing another lovely, charming, trusting, troubled young woman fall in love with the hero, as Shayla (Frankie Shaw) did, only to be fridged (look it up) to amplify the hero’s distress and cause problems for his revolutionary cellmates. It’s an awesome show, but I don’t want it to be just awesome. I want it to be great. That means less Cinema de Dudebro and more of other kinds of cinema, and maybe more literature and history, while we’re at it. Less cool, more school. Less mystery-box puzzle-making, more poetry. This show is capable of it, without a doubt. The proof is right there onscreen. But it keeps losing its way, week after week. And the bug was there from the start.