If you’ve been anywhere near the Internet this year, you’ll have heard of Mr. Robot, the US TV show about a computer vigilante. A series about hackers? The very word sounds dated these days – the kind of noun that was thrown about in the 1990s by people still clinging fearfully to their floppy disks – but Mr. Robot feels thrillingly contemporary.
“Hello, friend,” it begins, two words that have rarely sounded so threatening. It helps that they’re being spoken by Rami Malek, an actor with the kind of eerily pale face that means you wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out he was dead all along, a la The Sixth Sense. He plays Elliot, an engineer at a cyber-security firm, who defends corporations from the evils of the Internet during the day – and then attacks people online himself at night.
Of course, his targets are people who deserve it: creator Sam Esmail makes that clear from the opening, which sees Elliot confront a man who publishes pictures of under-age children on the web, tipping off the police anonymously with illicitly-obtained evidence. There’s a bizarre, superhero-like feel to his actions – but this is grounded in modern reality. After all, who needs powers to make a difference today? A broadband connection and a phishing scam are all vigilantes require when they go home from seeing the latest Marvel flick in the cinema. Not that Elliot would ever go to the cinema: he’s an anti-social as hackers come. He wears a hood, doesn’t like parties and even has a pet named Qwerty.
But that alienated, detached presence is oddly engaging: rather than fall back on lazy stereotypes, Esmail’s scripts mine Elliot’s brain for depth and character development. He talks to us, constantly breaking the fourth wall to deviate into rambling rants about society, which are normally delivered in the middle of conversations with other people. He curses the Apple-esque, omnipresent E Corp (“Evil Corp”) that hires his security firm, slags off Starbucks and resents the debt that controls Western civilisation.
“Our democracy has been hacked,” he declares, with the kind of anarchic passion usually associated with Russell Brand. So when the eponymous Mr. Robot turns up – played by Christian Slater – and offers him a role in hacktivist group fsociety, he finds it hard to resist.
Slater’s mysterious figure has all the charm of a Hollywood veteran, but also an unpredictable edge that, combined with his moral conviction, makes him a persuasive mentor. The show’s gripping hook, though, is that things are never that clear-cut. While the “biggest act of wealth redistribution in history” has an appealing ring to it (think Robin Hook remade by The Matrix’s The Wachowskis), it would also mean bringing down the company that employs his friends. On the one hand, there’s Martin Wallstrom as Tyrell Wellick, an ambitious businessman with a ruthless stare, a vicious slap and a willingness to seduce whoever it takes to get to the top; on the other, there’s Elliot’s sweet will-they-won’t-they colleague Angela (Portia Doubleday) and his well-meaning boss, Gideon (Michel Gill).
Esmail taps into each character in the same way that his lead accesses bank accounts and social networking accounts, keeping things emotionally ambiguous; the ones and zeroes all have tangible consequences in the real world, a place where, in Elliot’s mind, things can only be truly encrypted from online snooping. The fact that our hero is hooked on morphine, meanwhile, only reminds us how unreliable he is as a narrator.
“Hello, friend?” he corrects himself at the start. “That’s lame. Maybe I should give you a name, but that’s a slippery slope. You’re only in my head.”
As we delve into his warped mind, which contains everything from odd bursts of sympathy to his mental construct of us, his audience, the promise of another seven hours of subjective story-telling puts Mr. Robot firmly on the list of the year’s most interesting TV shows. Presented at fibre-optic pace by directors including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Niels Arden Oplev and Bosch and Breaking Bad’s Jim McKay, the high-speed download of tech terms, cruel twists and machine-like efficiency makes you wonder why more shows don’t engage with the digital realm in such detail. The deal to release the show exclusively on Amazon Prime in the UK only adds to that cutting-edge, online feel; this is a web series that truly “gets” the web. A TV show about hackers might sound like something written 20 years ago – probably a “cyber-thriller” about the “Millennium Bug” – but Mr. Robot makes most other series around seem dated.
All 10 episodes of Mr. Robot are now available to stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription – or, if you would also like free next-day delivery, as part of a £79 annual Amazon Prime membership.
Photos: Peter Kramer/USA Network