TV REVIEW: MR. ROBOT
Pilot episode, "eps1.0_hellofriend.mov"
POSTED 2:12pm | 13 JULY 2015
In MR. ROBOT, Elliot, a cyber-security engineer by day and vigilante hacker by night, is recruited by a mysterious underground group to destroy the firm he's paid to protect. Elliot must decide how far he'll go to expose the forces he believes are running (and ruining) the world (USA Network).
Whenever television or film tries to tell a story about hackers, or one even slightly related to technology or science, I'm usually rolling my eyes so violently at the nonsensical dialogue that I get headaches. Just being inadvertently exposed to promos for CSI: Cyber can nearly kill me. I'm not saying this because I'm some super-smart tech genius - far from it - but because the dialogue is usually violently dumb when characters start talking technical. I know just enough to know when a writer hasn't even tried, and the fact that very few shows or movies meet my low threshold is a cause of great frustration, especially when something is otherwise well written, directed, edited, or acted.
So it came as a massive relief when the opening scene of Mr. Robot discussed hacking in a realistic way, or in a way that passed my low threshold, because I was completely expecting to again roll my eyes throughout the whole episode. From the moment Elliot (Rami Malek from The Pacific, Need for Speed) explains to a coffee shop owner, who runs a kiddy porn site on the side, how he hacked him and how he will expose him to the police without resorting to meaningless hacker-babble, I was on board with the show. It's handled in a simple, but effective, way that helps the viewer believe in the character and the world he exists in.
The pilot episode mostly works, and it's mainly thanks to how well the techno-dialogue is written. There's no super-fast tapping away at keyboards, furiously writing code, to simulate "hacking". Elliot runs a simple password cracking program with a click of his mouse instead, and then sits back waiting for it to run all possible combinations based on the clues he gathers earlier through "social hacking" - a process much closer to what happens in real life. This approach gives the show immediate credibility, which it cashes later in the episode to cover some sloppier moments, but also neatly removes the common tripping point that most other shows fall over.
The writing overall is refreshingly unencumbered by the tropes of tech stories in the crime/thriller genre. First time TV showrunner, and Mr. Robot creator, Sam Esmail also takes the writing credit for the pilot episode, and if the pilot is any indication we should expect to see some well written and ambitious plot moments throughout the rest of the season. I feel that what really holds it all together, though, is the steady hand behind the camera of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the excellent crime/drama tv shows Rejseholdet and Ørnen: En krimi-odyssé). He has a style that has flair and character, but which doesn't overwhelm the story, and he is enough of an outsider that the mix with Esmail creates a confident sense of experimentation without going nuts. They have basically taken all the best bits about modern TV, and avoided all the mistakes, because they literally don't know any better.
After Elliot takes down the kiddy porn shop owner he becomes paranoid that he is being followed by "men in black", which he sees down the end of the train or on the other side of the street. He's concerned that a powerful conglomerate of one-percenters are worried about his hacking prowess and might be out to get him. We know this because Elliot engages the audience with voice over throughout the episode and tells us this. He's not really breaking the fourth wall, but rather talking to himself, or an inner-self, much in the same way Dexter Morgan (Dexter) spoke to/about his "dark passenger". In fact, the show gives off very strong Dexter vibes (in a good way), with Elliot acting as hacker vigilante by night while trying to stop hackers by day as a computer security engineer - just without the serial killing. When he arrives at work the next day he learns that the firm's biggest client, global conglomerate E Corp (which multiple characters, including Elliot, refer to as "Evil" Corp), has been hacked again. His boss, Gideon Goddard (Michael Gill from House of Cards), is keen to put the pressure on Elliot to resolve the issue, while his co-worker and childhood friend (possibly sweetheart?) Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday from Youth in Revolt) berates him for missing her birthday party the previous night. They're interrupted by her boyfriend, Ollie Parker (Ben Rappaport from Outsourced), who openly worries that his girlfriend's best friend doesn't like him. Then we see Elliot in a possibly mandated therapy session with Dr. Krista Gordon (Gloria Reuben from ER, Raising the Bar), during which Elliot lies, hallucinates, and reveals to the audience he has also hacked her. These encounters are as much about establishing character as they are about setting up the A and B stories for the pilot and any ongoing plot threads to be resolved later in the season. They also serve to show Elliot's social anxiety, compulsion to hack, and slipping grasp on reality.
The B story follows Elliot's vigilantism as he attempts to find evidence against Dr. Gordon's new boyfriend, whom she met online, because he feels the need to protect his therapist. This is where we see Elliot's skills for social engineering shine. The A story opens with a DDOS attack on E Corp by a hacktivist group called fsociety, which Elliot and his Allsafe co-workers thwart, while the enigmatic leader of fsociety, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater from Heathers, True Romance, Interview with the Vampire), tries to recruit Elliot to their cause, promising to bring down E Corp and usher in an anarchist revolution. Elliot is torn between doing what he wants to do (joining fsociety) and what he hates doing (protecting E Corp) to help his best friend and colleagues keep their jobs.
With possibly the exception of Slater the show is very well cast. Malek makes for a great lead and plays off well against Doubleday and Gill, while the support cast all seamlessly blend into the story without becoming bland stereotypes. Even Slater isn't unbearable. And the score by Mac Quayle (American Horror Story: Freak Show) hits all the right notes, though the real stand out music moment of the pilot is an extended montage set to Neil Diamond's If You Go Away. It's a lovely use of licensed music that cements Mr. Robot's willingness to risk angering the bland network executives in service of their story.
Mr. Robot comes across in the pilot as a show that knows what it wants to be. It doesn't experiment so much with form or structure, or even delve too deeply into uncharted territory, but it does work extra hard to present its world and characters with more realism than they usually get. If the story and the character of Elliot feel like Dexter, then the approach to story-telling and presentation take very much after Bryan Fuller's Hannibal. It still colours within the lines of what is expected of TV but uses a much fuller palette.
It is also a show that refuses to take itself too seriously. It gently plays around with structure to reinforce the point that Elliot isn't always sure what is real and what is in his head, and uses well placed meta-humour to comment on its playful use of structure. Elliot occasionally has flash backs while talking to people, but the first time this happens, during his conversation with Angela about her birthday party, we get a hard cut back to the present in the middle of the flash back while she berates him for spacing out halfway through their conversation. It's little moments like this that ground the show and give me hope for the rest of the season. Maybe Mr. Robot can be as clever as it feels in the pilot?
Either way I was very impressed with the pilot. I was certainly not expecting it to be this smart and well executed. Where it goes from here will be interesting, especially if it struggles to connect with an audience or critics, but it's a great start that's well worth checking out.
Watch list: It's hacked my hope drive