Preview: Mr Robot 1×1 (US: USA Network)

I want you to hack me as hard as you can

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, USA Network. Starts June 24
In the UK: Not yet acquired

I want you to hack me as hard as you can

Over the years, the USA Network has struggled to work out what kind of network it is. Scroll back a decade or more in the timeline and most people associated it with the likes of country & western reality talent show Nashville Star. Then it started trying to do drama, with a brilliant but quickly cancelled remake of the UK’s Touching Evil, which was perhaps a bit too dark and unmarketable for the likes of USA.

The network didn’t abandon its attempts with drama, but the set back did lead it to start going a bit fluffier. By about 2007, Burn Notice, Monk and Psych were the network’s go-to shows, and while Burn Notice was obviously a much darker show than either Psych and Monk, it still wasn’t quite Requiem for a Dream. These shows had something of an 80s nostalgia to them, which led to the fluffy likes of In Plain Sight.

2009’s Royal Pains proved a game-changer, showing that fluffy and light were very much the order of the day on USA, leading us to the quite fluffy White Collar, the slightly fluffy Covert Affairs, Suits and Graceland, the really very fluffy Common Law, Fairly Legal, Necessary Roughness, Playing House, and Sirens, and eventually the still-fluffy Benched.

Now some of these were great, some of them really weren’t, but they almost all still had something of an edge to them, at least. And slowly, with most of the new fluff fluffing in the ratings, the pendulum has started to swing back over the past year or so towards USA’s skulking darker side with the likes of Rush, Satisfaction and, coming soon, Complications.

This is all for the good, since now we have perhaps USA’s darkest – and best – new show for quite some time, Mr Robot. It sounds fluffy, doesn’t it, with that name, but it’s really not. Think Fight Club if it was all about hacking or Batman, if Batman was a socially anxious coder who used technology to stop people faking identities, end the distribution of images of child abuse and bring down the corporate elite who secretly rule the world.

Rami Malek (24, The War At Home, The Pacific) is Elliot, a white hat techie at a cybersecurity firm. He has social issues, which means in between bouts of crying to himself at home from loneliness, taking morphine, having sex with his drug dealer, hacking people he knows about to find out more about them or talking to his new friends – the viewers at home – he’s busily putting the world to rights. Or to rights as he sees them.

In particular, he’d really like to destroy his company’s biggest client, The Evil Corporation, and one day he comes across ‘Mr Robot’ (Christian Slater) and his team of socially minded hackers, who offer him the chance to do just that and liberate society from this menace. Is The Evil Corporation really running the world? Is what Slater says possible? Can he be trusted? And is he even real or is he just the Tyler Durden of Elliot’s unmedicated, occasionally paranoid schizophrenic sub-conscious?

All these questions and more are asked and you will want to know the answers. If you’re in the US, you can watch the full episode below; otherwise, I’ll leave you with some trailers and we can talk more after the jump.

MR. ROBOT follows Elliot (Rami Malek, “The Pacific”), a young programmer who works as a cyber-security engineer by day and as a vigilante hacker by night. Elliot finds himself at a crossroads when the mysterious leader (Christian Slater, “The Adderall Diaries”) of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect. Compelled by his personal beliefs, Elliot struggles to resist the chance to take down the multinational CEOs he believes are running (and ruining) the world. The series also stars Portia Doubleday (“Her”), Carly Chaikin (“Suburgatory”) and Martin Wallström (“Simple Simon”).

MR. ROBOT is produced by Universal Cable Productions, this contemporary and culturally resonant drama is executive produced by Sam Esmail (“Comet”) and Anonymous Content’s Steve Golin (“True Detective”) and Chad Hamilton (“Breakup at a Wedding”).

Is it any good?
I actually really loved it – as much as I loved Suits when it first started. It has a few hitches – most of them Christian Slater and the show’s name – but Mr Robot is a definite keeper from the looks of it.

Obviously, it’s all a little bit fantastic, having a grand conspiracy theory about 1%-ers at its heart, although it could potentially all be fantastic in the sense of being the dreamworld of a schizophrenic à la Perception. If it’s not all a fantasy, it’s certainly treading a very awkward path.

It’s also got a socially awkward yet socially perceptive hacker at its heart, who nevertheless has a female best friend and gets to have sex with a hot female drug dealer on occasion. That’s pretty implausible, too.

But otherwise, the show tries to keep it all as real as possible, sometimes to the extent of excluding the non-techy who might not be able to deal with Tor, rootkits, KDE v Gnome and DDoS attacks, and can’t spot there’s something wrong with a quad-dotted IPv4 address with an octet of greater than 8 bits. If you are a techy, you’ll just exhilarate finally watching someone who can grep, chmod and ip link his way through a drama, rather than fake it through yet another faux OS mock-up.

Malek’s performance is spot-on and he convincingly portrays someone who can only relate to others through computers but who wants so much more. The direction is first rate and the soundtrack is a dream for anyone who loved 80s electronic music (Halt and Catch Fire’s back next week, by the way – woo hoo!). And although it is very dark, moody and concerned with Important Things, it has a wicked sense of humour, much in keeping with Fight Club, to which it has many obvious parallels, right down to its spoofing of corporate videos and the same end plan for its main protagonist/antagonist.

Which takes us to the show’s biggest problem: Slater. Now I actually quite like Slater as an actor, but apart from being a showkiller of the first order (cf My Own Worst Enemy, The Forgotten, Breaking In, Mind Games), he’s really only tonally viable here as a character if he is a Tyler Durden-alike, a figment of Malek’s imagination and Malek is secretly really running the whole show himself. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that is the case, judging by the ending of the pilot episode and the fact Malek finds himself followed by men in black suits at practically every opportunity. But if not, Slater’s a great big implausible clown with a ‘Mr Robot’ iron-on patch in the middle of an otherwise fairly edgy drama.

All the same, this is a definite keeper and I’ll be avidly tuning in for episode two as soon as it rolls round.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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