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Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015 02:41 pm

"Mr. Robot" a thought-provoking, harrowing ride

Rami Malek is Elliot Anderson in "Mr. Robot."
Photo courtesy USA Network

 

Who hasn’t dreamed of exacting revenge against an evil so obtrusive and dominating that it seems untouchable? That’s the driving force behind “Mr. Robot,” a new show that premiered on USA Network in May. The season finale is scheduled for tonight, after being postponed because it contains scenes similar to what happened when a reporter and camera man were murdered on live TV in Roanoke, Virginia, on Aug. 26, the day the finale was originally scheduled to air.

The show presents a compelling narrative that taps into populist anger over growing income inequality and the explosion of consumer debt in the U.S. It’s an exciting and engrossing story that weaves one young man’s internal struggles into a much larger global struggle. Rami Malek adeptly portrays a reclusive, introverted grey-hat hacker named Elliot Alderson, who uses his skills to peek into other peoples’ email, phones and other records, sometimes to blackmail them and sometimes as a way of connecting with them.

The show opens with Elliot telling a coffee shop owner that he has cracked the shop’s wifi and discovered something horrendous. Here's the clip:


Elliot’s skill and his work at a cybersecurity firm lead him to be noticed by a secretive hacker who goes by the moniker “Mr. Robot” (Christian Slater) and who has a grand plan to address a problem he perceives about society. It turns out the cybersecurity firm that Elliot works for contracts with a massive conglomerate derisively referred to as Evil Corp, and Elliot is the key to destroying that company.

Spoiler!


Many of the side characters are as compelling as Elliot, including his drug-slinging neighbor/girlfriend, her dangerous and vindictive supplier, the sociopathic executive manipulating his way up the corporate ladder at Evil Corp, and Mr. Robot himself, whose past and motivations remained a secret through most of this season.

The dialogue can be stilted at times, like when Elliot is talking to the viewer. I found myself rolling my eyes more than once as he describes his inner angst. It’s standard lonely-guy-looking-down-on-society stuff, but it’s certainly not intolerable. I think most people have come to accept that TV and movie characters don’t speak like people in real life, and that’s okay.

What does bother me about the show is that Elliot’s mental health issues are starting to feel like a side show rather than an element of the main story arc. I’m sure the show’s writers have a plan to make Elliot’s delusions relevant to the larger plot, but for now, they seem like a distraction. Having not seen the final episode yet, I may have to come back later and eat my words.

Despite my admittedly minor complaints, “Mr. Robot” remains a fascinating exploration of what happens when hacker culture collides with corporate power. For a show about a hacker, quite a bit of the scenes take place away from a computer, illustrating that in real life, a major component of hacking is social engineering.

I also appreciate that the writers mostly adhered to the conventions of hacking. Elliot and others use actual Linux command line interfaces instead of the goofy, unrealistic hacking interfaces so many other productions present. (I’m looking at you, The Italian Job.) It’s clear the show has done its homework; at one point, Elliot calls another character a “script kiddie,” which is slang for someone who steals scripts written by other people and passes himself off as a true hacker. (And yes, I know that I’ve been using the word “hacker” incorrectly. The people in this show are more aptly referred to as “crackers,” but I didn’t want to confuse anyone by splitting hairs.) There are a few scenes in which Elliot’s hacking is a bit too quick and convenient to be realistic, but it serves to move the story along, so I’ll forgive it.

I think it’s too early to say whether this show will develop into a genre-defining epic like everyone’s favorite show, “Breaking Bad,” but it’s worth a look. It has a strong cast (including BD Wong as a female Chinese hacker queen!), a hip soundtrack and a clever premise. As Dr. Steve Brule would say, “Check it out!

It probably goes without saying that you shouldn't watch the finale if you haven't watched any of the earlier episodes. Get info and full episodes here. The finale airs at 9 p.m. on USA (channel 30 on Comcast...I think.)

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