Around the release of films like “Hackers” and “The Matrix,” one subset of computer nerd began transforming into a hipster hybrid, and “Mr. Robot” continues enabling that image.
After watching “Mr. Robot,” the new USA drama about a rogue cyberhacker, the first thing you’ll want to do is change all your passwords. In fact, bolstered by the lead character’s quick rundown of hacking tips, you may end up pausing halfway through the first episode to do that immediately.
Rami Malek (Ahkmenrah, “Night at the Museum” films) plays Elliot Alderson, an IT specialist at a computer security company who also moonlights as a vigilante, exhuming every digital detail of various people’s lives and doling out justice as he sees fit. Eventually his expertise brings him to the attention of one “Mr. Robot,” played by Christian Slater (“Heathers,” “True Romance”), who leads an underground gang of hacktivists bluntly called “FSociety” – think Anonymous meets Operation Wall Street – intent on wreaking havoc in protest of corporate greed and taking down “the man.”
Around the release of films like “Hackers” and “The Matrix,” one subset of computer nerd began transforming into a hipster hybrid, and “Mr. Robot” continues enabling that image. Alderson is all sharp features and great haircut as he skulks around Manhattan sporting a dark hoodie, while constantly plugged into his iPhone. Needless to say, he has no trouble getting laid. It seems like everyone on the show – from his gay boss to his best friend/secret crush – is dying to hang out with him despite his painful social phobia.
The irony is that Alderson is a complete introvert and possible psychotic. The show itself is framed by the premise that the audience is part of his imagination, one of the inner voices he constantly entertains, and events that occur hover near hallucination. At the start of the series, he calls the behemoth corporation responsible for his father’s death “Evil Corp,” and sure enough, it’s referred to as such throughout the show by other characters, on signs and TV news tickers. He’s paranoid about dark-suited men following him through the city, and he wonders if they’re a figment of his imagination. Of course they aren’t.
Alderson’s fluidity about what’s real and what isn’t allows the show to shift genres. It’s not sci-fi per se, but it definitely touches on themes from Philip K. Dick’s “Minority Report,” pointedly illuminating how transparent our electronic lives have become. It also nods to the serially insane dramas of “Dexter” and “Hannibal,” highlighting the struggle between who we present to the world, and who we really are inside. It’s also very similar to the dilemma faced by one Clark Kent.
“Mr. Robot” is cleverly disguised as a superhero drama. At first, that shows up in barely perceptible ways, like how Alderson pulls his hood over his head like “The Arrow” when he goes out at night; how he almost magically accesses the inner life of everyone online; and how (like Bruce Wayne) his traumatic childhood imbued him with an obligation to justice. And like many superheroes, he’s burdened by a crushing sense of loneliness and isolation brought on by his double life. Alderson escapes from the pain by snorting morphine. He even does a bump before walking into work, perhaps hoping to deaden the voices in his head, hoping he can stop talking to us.
As the titular Mr. Robot, Christian Slater has played this very character before, a wisecracking smarty pants who seems cooler-than-thou and perpetually stoned – “How very!” – and he does it well. The title “Mr. Robot” is set in a bright-red Sega font, recalling vintage video games. Alongside Slater’s presence, there’s a twinge of nostalgia to the show. It’s a reminder of a time when it was easier to disappear in NYC by living in a cheap walkup on the Lower East Side – to live a life that screamed “FSociety” and all its Heathers. While Slater’s character is unimpressed by just about everything, his commitment to the cause presents a marked contrast to Alderson’s uncertainty. And to “Mr. Robot,” such dithering is just a flaw. “You’re either a one or a zero!” Mr. Robot snaps at Alderson, insisting that destiny is mere binary code.
But people aren’t robots. The show blurs the line between ones and zeroes like a morphine-drip haze, always questioning where its sympathies should land. Malek’s nuanced acting gives us all a chance to meander within the lead character’s mind, and what we find is far better than a one or a zero, and it’s intriguing and touching in its unexpectedness. These are the qualities one least expects from a robot.
“Mr. Robot” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on USA Network.
— Hugh Elliott is a writer and artist living in California who rarely uses his Twitter handle @wehogayman.