Vigilante Computer Geeks Reign In The Addictive 'Mr. Robot'

Aug 26, 2015
Originally published on August 26, 2015 2:10 pm

If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st, it's the hacker. From The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — hackers have become inescapable. But where detectives work to restore social order, hackers manipulate all those ethereal ones and zeroes to disrupt and maybe even overthrow it.

You find this radicalism and much more in USA Network's Mr. Robot, the addictive new psychological thriller that — from its trenchant themes to the casual diversity of its characters and production team — is probably the most modern show on TV. Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot doesn't merely usher us into a paranoid world that's a heightened version of our own. We enter it through the voice-over of a delusional vigilante hacker whose perceptions aren't exactly reliable.

His name is Elliot Alderson, a lonely genius played by Rami Malek, a fascinatingly soulful actor who manages to be both pop-eyed and hollow-eyed at the very same time. Elliot spends his days working at a digital security firm with his childhood friend Angela (played by Portia Doubleday) and his nights hacking other people's personal lives and doing small hits of morphine. He's horrified by a culture in which "we collectively thought Steve Jobs a great man, even though we know he made billions off the backs of children."

Elliot harbors a special loathing for a multinational he calls Evil Corp that's like the monstrous love child of Google and Halliburton. That hatred finds a purpose when he's approached by a mysterious anarchist known as "Mr. Robot" (played by Christian Slater) who leads him to a Coney Island arcade to meet a cabal called fsociety. Fsociety plans to take down Evil Corp — and The System.

The story that follows is so strewn with trapdoors and nerd bait it would take an hour to summarize it. Suffice it to say that Elliot gets involved with drug dealers, rival hacker groups, a feisty female cyber whiz (played by Carly Chaikin) and a sociopathic Evil Corp exec (Swedish actor Martin Wallstrom), whose ambitious wife makes Lady MacBeth look like Marge Simpson.

Now, Mr. Robot is not wholly original. Esmail has clearly read cyberpunk masters like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and studied the work of director David Fincher — every episode seems to echo something from one of Fincher's movies. Yet he wields these influences well. Painstaking in its photography and musical choices, Esmail's show pulls off the tricky feat of telling a gripping story about keyboard tappers that doesn't make computer geeks cringe. It captures the psychic dislocations of these days when our busy on-screen lives — and personas — are changing old notions of the self.

Esmail uses Elliot's paranoid radicalism to explore the feeling that our lives are dominated, if not run, by vast corporate and governmental forces that seemingly can't be controlled by conventional means, by either the right or the left. Elliot's dream of toppling Evil Corp is a fantasy of massive social change being created by a few hackers, a fantasy that, thanks to Assange and Snowden, no longer seems wholly preposterous. This is revolutionary politics for an age when most people can't be bothered.

It should be noted that Esmail neither endorses nor condemns Elliot's and fsociety's plans. Even as the show portrays its hero as essentially benevolent, Elliot's guerrilla attempts to improve the world sometimes succeed — but sometimes they have disastrous unintended consequences.

Mr. Robot taps into more visceral feelings, too. It feeds our uneasy awareness that everything we once thought private no longer is. These days, we leave a trail of pixels behind us, be it emails, online purchases, medical records or membership in the recently hacked adultery website Ashley Madison. You know who you are. Watching Elliot effortlessly troll his friends' and enemies' personal lives, you'll probably think of buying one of those programs intended to safeguard all your passwords. Just hope it wasn't designed by a real-world Mr. Robot.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Tonight is the season finale of "Mr. Robot," the USA Network series that emerged as the summer's most talked-about show. Created by Sam Esmail, it's the story of a brilliant but delusional computer wizard, played by Rami Malek, who gets involved with a mysterious cell of fellow hackers. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, is hooked and says that this is a show that captures our cultural moment.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st it's the hacker from "The Matrix" to "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Hackers have become inescapable. But where detectives work to restore social order, hackers manipulate all those ethereal ones and zeros to disrupt and maybe even overthrow it. You find this radicalism and much more in "Mr. Robot," the addictive new psychological thriller that, from its trenchant themes to the casual diversity of its characters and production team, is probably the most modern show on TV.

Created by Sam Esmail, "Mr. Robot" doesn't really usher us into a paranoid world that's a heightened version of our own. We enter it through the voice-over of a delusional, vigilante hacker whose perceptions aren't exactly reliable. His name is Elliot Alderson, a lonely genius played by Rami Malek, a fascinatingly soulful actor who manages to be both pop-eyed and hollow-eyed at the very same time. Elliot spends his days working at a digital security firm with his childhood friend Angela, that's Portia Doubleday, and his nights hacking other people's personal lives and doing small hits of morphine. He's horrified by a culture in which, and I quote, "We collectively thought Steve Jobs a great man even though we know he made billions off the backs of children." Elliot harbors a special loathing for a multinational he calls Evil Corp that's like the monstrous lovechild of Google and Halliburton. That hatred finds a purpose when he's approached by a mysterious anarchist known as Mr. Robot, that's Christian Slater, who leads him to a Coney Island arcade to meet a COBOL called F Society.

F Society plans to take down Evil Corp and the system. The story that follows is so strewn with trapdoors and nerd bait it would take this whole show to summarize it. Suffice it to say that Elliot gets involved with drug dealers, rival hacker groups, a feisty female cyber-whiz played by Carly Chaikin and a sociopathic Evil Corp exec; that's Swedish actor Martin Wallstrom whose ambitious wife makes Lady Macbeth look like Marge Simpson. Through all its many twists, the show remains drenched in the fervor you hear in Elliot's riff on cyber culture that served as the show's teaser.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROBOT")

RAMI MALEK: (As Elliot Alderson) We text, we email, we reply all, we sign up, we sign in, we post, we repost, we tweet, we like, we link, we friend, we unfriend. We follow, we tag, we hashtag, we LOL, we TMI, we happy face, we comment, we heart. We say nothing.

POWERS: Now, "Mr. Robot" is not wholly original. Esmail has clearly read cyberpunk masters like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and studied the work of director David Fincher. Every episode seems to echo something from one of his movies, yet he wields these influences well. Painstaking in his photography and musical choices, Esmail's show pulls off the tricky feat of telling a gripping story about keyboard tappers that doesn't make computer geeks cringe. It captures the psychic dislocations of these days when our busy on-screen lives and personas are changing old notions of the self. Esmail uses Elliot's paranoid radicalism to explore the feeling that our lives are dominated if not run by vast corporate and governmental forces that seemingly can't be controlled by conventional means by either the right or the left. Elliot's dream of toppling Evil Corp is a fantasy of massive social change being created by a few hackers, a fantasy that thanks to Assange and Snowden, no longer seems wholly preposterous. This is revolutionary politics for an age when most people can't be bothered. It should be noted that Esmail neither endorses nor condemns Elliot's and F Society's plans. Even as the show portrays its hero as essentially benevolent, Elliot's guerrilla attempts to improve the world sometimes succeed, but sometimes they have disastrous, unintended consequences. "Mr. Robot" taps into more visceral feelings too. It feeds our uneasy awareness that everything we once thought private no longer is. These days, we leave a trail of pixels behind us be it emails, online purchases, medical records or membership in the recently hacked adultery website Ashley Madison. You know who you are. Watching Elliot effortlessly troll his friends and enemies' personal lives, you'll probably think of buying one of those programs intended to safeguard all your passwords. Just hope it wasn't designed by a real-world Mr. Robot.

GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Larry David looks back on his early standup comedy and the show "Seinfeld" and compares his own personality with the character he played on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And writer Chris Offutt tells us about his late father who wrote and published over 400 books, most of them pornography. His father believed he was an artist and a pioneer in the field. I hope you'll join us tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.