SXSW attendees got their first introduction to new USA TV series “Mr. Robot” through a gimmicky campaign designed to spark curiosity. As an homage to the lead character, mysterious hacker-types in shades and branded hoodies roamed the halls of the event. At home, TV viewers were subjected to vague, brief ads that used a “Matrix” hook to lure them to the official website. Whether you were truly inspired to learn more, or landed here mid-eyeroll, you’ll be happy to learn there really is a cool series lurking behind the hype.
Who is Mr. Robot?
Rami Malek and his anti-establishment voiceovers have featured prominently in the television ads, but he isn’t the title character. Malek plays Elliot, a cyber-security programmer who hacks into people’s personal lives in his free time, and exposes any criminal activity he finds. His serious social dysfunction prevents him from engaging with those he cares about, but he deeply analyzes, deceives, and dismantles complete strangers with ease.
Like Neo in “The Matrix,” Elliot is disillusioned and dissatisfied with the world he sees around him. That’s where Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) comes in, the anarchist leader of a group determined to tear down the power structure around them. Unlike the blockbuster film, however, “Mr. Robot” is not so clear on who or what is evil. The series follows Elliot as he dives headlong into the battle for chaos over order, and then wonders if it’s really worth fighting for.
If you haven’t yet heard Elliot’s narration, you can get an idea of his frustrated inner dialogue in this teaser clip for the show.
The Realistic World of Hacking
Early reviews of the “Mr. Robot” screening at SXSW were glowing, and the preview won the audience favorite award. Geek fans, tired of the usual TV cyber-fixes where “two keystrokes saved the world,” loved how realistic the hacking lifestyle appeared in the new show. Rather than relying on fancy CGI representations of data, the series shows Elliot typing away on a keyboard. The audience’s excitement builds because we invest in the character, what he’s trying to do, and the suspense of actual failure.
Even people with limited computer experience groan when TV and movie characters figure out someone’s password in two tries. It was funny way back in “Clear and Present Danger,” when geeky Petey (Greg Germann) exposed how simplistic most regular people’s passwords are. “Mr. Robot” lives in the modern age of cyber-security, however, and Elliot does actual detective legwork to gather intel on his targets. Like a con artist psychic, the more information a hacker has to work with, the easier it is for him to guess the rest.
The showrunners were diligent about portraying computing genius the right way because they’ve been frustrated by the inaccuracies themselves. Executive producer Sam Esmail called previous hacking shows “f—ing terrible,” with more emphasis on flash than substance.
“Hacking doesn’t look anything remotely like that,” he said at the SXSW Q&A. “I’m sorry, Chris Hemsworth does not look like a hacker.” It’s true that Thor could never be so stealthy and socially invisible, even with a black hoodie.
The Women of “Mr. Robot”
I’m excited to see the women in Elliot’s life, beginning with Marlene, a gorgeous hipster hacker who specializes in dangerous computer worms. She’s played by Carly Chaikin, who turned dead eyes and a monotone voice into a comedic art form on “Suburgatory.” Marlene chain smokes and Elliot dabbles in heroin, so I’m guessing they bond over addictions, cyber crimes, and contempt for stupid people.
The one person Elliot opens up to is Angela (Portia Doubleday), a childhood friend and an account executive at a cyber security firm. This sounds like a conflict of interest waiting to happen. Like Chaikin, Doubleday had her own “mean girl” roots, starring as troublemaker Chris Hargensen in the 2013 version of “Carrie.” You might also recognize the actress and her trademark long blonde locks from Matthew Perry’s short-lived sitcom “Mr. Sunshine.”
The smooth female voice in the “Mr. Robot” promos should also sound familiar. Gloria Reuben of “ER” and “Falling Skies” fame plays Elliot’s therapist Krista. Of course Elliot did a thorough background check on her, so he may consider her trustworthy enough to eventually confide the truth to.
“Mr. Robot” premieres June 24 on USA. As the big name on the project, Slater should bring plenty of charismatic, anarchist charm that he cultivated so long ago as a pirate radio DJ in “Pump Up the Volume.” If you still need convincing about the compelling mix of drive, intellect, and vulnerability Malek brings to hacker Elliot, take a look at this extended clip from the show.
Photo Credit:David Giesbrecht/USA Network