A thriller about technology and hacking is the sort of thing that’s right up my street, and I’ve been keen to watch Mr Robot for ages. Thanks to Amazon Prime I’ve finally got around to digesting the first ten episodes, and I have to say it didn’t disappoint.
At the same time, neither was it quite what I was expecting – which is good, actually. It’s much rougher and more authentic, stylishly directed and photographed but never forgetting that it lives on the streets of New York City every bit as much as the sleek corporate offices that tower over the skyline, their chief executives looking down on the teaming masses below and utterly disconnected and removed from ordinary people both physically and mentally.
It’s a story with its roots in the Occupy campaigns, a drama about the rage and helplessness that normal folks feel in the 21st century as prices spiral, banks foreclose and surveillance is everywhere. That oppressive malevolence is represented in Mr Robot by the not-too-subtly named E Corp which hacktivist Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) targets, aiming to wipe out the international conglomerate’s records which will free millions of people of their debt – and potentially crash the entire capitalist system worldwide.
Elliot falls in with a like-minded group called fsociety led by the enigmatic Mr Robot (Christian Slater), with Darlene (Carly Chaikin) among their number. Meanwhile Elliot is also juggling his day job at a cyber security firm where his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) works as an account manager. One of the company’s biggest clients is E Corp itself, represented by its ruthless senior VP of technology Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström).
While the main core of the first season is fsociety’s bid to wipe out E Corp, there are also a lot of other storylines threading their way through including Angela’s faltering relationship with boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport) and Elliot’s developing feelings for his next door neighbour (and part time drugs dealer) Shayla (Frankie Shaw) who is being threatened by the local druglord Fernando (Elliot Villar). Increasingly it feels like these side stories and peripheral characters are taking over and becoming more interesting to the programme makers than the original hacking concept, and they’re not wrong. As a result the season becomes less rather than more focussed as it goes on, getting distracted and fragmented along the way.
This may very well be an entirely intentional creative decision by the show’s creator and leader writer Sam Esmail. This breaking up of logical, linear structure parallels the disintegration of Elliot’s mental state as anxiety, depression and psychosis come to the fore. Much like the recent Legion, this is a show told largely from the point of view of a wildly unreliably narrator – to the point where you literally can’t trust what you’re seeing on screen or being told by the voiceover, which is directly addressed to the viewing audience.
Voiceovers rarely work – they have to be incredibly well written, work within the concept of the show or film in which they feature, and be important and integral to the story. Most of all they have to be performed with spot-on precision. And Mr Robot achieves all these objectives here, with Rami Malek the MVP of the whole thing with a truly remarkable and dazzling performance that rightly earned him that year’s Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. His performance is electric and you can’t take your eyes off him for the entire time he’s on screen.
Not that he’s alone. Christian Slater is also as good as anything I’ve seen him in for many a year; Carly Chaikin and Portia Doubleday both grown in leaps and bounds across the first run of episodes; Martin Wallström is stand-out chilling as he channels his best inner Patrick Bateman; and as E Corp’s chilling boss, Michael Cristofer steals so many scenes toward the end of the run that it’s no wonder that he was promoted to a full series regular for the second season. Also of note is the terrific techno music score by Mac Quayle which ensures there’s never a moment when your attention wonders from what’s happening on screen.
All of this is played out against a backdrop of computer programming and hacking that it as realistic as any I’ve ever seen on screen. I’m far from being a hacker myself but I’ve worked long enough in IT support and digital media to have a fair idea of how this technology works, and film and television shows never get close to an accurate representation – until now. I’m sure there are a few slips and missteps now and again but I certainly didn’t spot any. If you’re not techno-literate then you may just have to accept all this as background music because it doesn’t stop to hold the audience’s hand and walk you through it – you either know and get this stuff or you don’t, in which case too bad. Even if that is the case, the drama and the performances make the series eminently watchable regardless.
It definitely lives up to the hype, and Malek’s starring role is worth the price of admission alone even if other areas occasionally feel a little rough and rushed. Without question it’s something unique and special, and for that reason is not to be missed by anyone interested in top modern drama.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Mr Robot seasons 1 and 2 are available on DVD and Blu-ray, and on Amazon Prime in the UK. Season 2 is currently airing on Universal channel on Wednesdays at 9pm. A third 10-part season is scheduled to air in the US in October 2017.