USA's new drama “Mr. Robot” is bursting with storytelling devices that, individually, have been overused in recent years to the point of irritation.
Excessive narration to explain every character, every plot twist, and every emotion our hero is feeling? Check!
A hero described in the press notes as a “vigilante hacker,” and who spends enough time sitting at a keyboard in the first two episodes to live up to that moniker? Check! (Though at least no one on the show refers to themselves as a hacktivist.)
Abundant grand pronouncements about The Way We Live Now, most of them just wrapped in vague anti-corporate sentiments? Check!
A central character suffering from enough undefined mental health issues that large swaths of the show's story and other characters may exist only in his head, thus allowing the creative team to pull the rug out from under the audience whenever and wherever they please? Triple check!
Yet despite checking so many different boxes on my no-no's list, “Mr. Robot” is compulsively watchable and interesting. It's a reminder that even the most well-worn cliches can still work with the right execution.
In particular, the show (it debuts tomorrow night at 10, though the first episode has been available online for weeks) demonstrates how the right piece of casting can overcome a lot of material that might seem questionable in lesser hands.
The casting in question involves Rami Malek, who made such an impression five years ago in “The Pacific” as an amoral Marine called Snafu, and who here plays the vigilante hacker in question, Elliot. Malek is small and gaunt, with eyes that always look like they're a half-step away from sinking completely into his head, never to be exposed to the world again. It's a look that works well for the character, who isn't the Mr. Robot of the title(*) but is usually far more comfortable with machines than other humans. Creator Sam Esmail places an awful lot on his star's narrow shoulders – Malek's in virtually every scene, usually pulling double duty as central character and narrator, having to explain this tangled world to us even as he navigates it – and Malek shoulders all of it with aplomb. It's the kind of show you often see built around an established star whom the audience would want to see that much (and/or who wouldn't agree to take the job otherwise); here, it's a star vehicle for a young character actor who's so compellingly vulnerable that it feels like the show couldn't have been made with anyone else in that role.
(*) To viewers of a certain age – and/or fans of “Chuck” – that title is always going to scan as “Mr. Roboto.” Then again, USA's the network with a show called “Graceland” that has nothing to do with either Elvis or Paul Simon.
Malek and Esmail are helped by the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the original Swedish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and thus knows a thing or twelve about crafting tension out of scenes of people staring at computer monitors.
That Elliot is the only character who really pops in the first episode – and Carly Chaikin's fellow hacker Darlene the only additional one to stand out in episode two – feels more like a feature than a bug. Whether Elliot is on the autism spectrum, is schizophrenic, or has some mysterious cocktail of ailments and disabilities, he has grave difficulty understanding and interacting with other people. To him, everyone's a rough sketch – including the characters, like Christian Slater in the title role as the leader of a hacking ring looking to recruit Elliot, who could well only exist in his imagination – and they play better as such in the early going than if they felt as fleshed-out as he is.
That a Tyler Durden twist with Mr. Robot himself seems possible would ordinarily be a warning sign. But Esmail is very smart with how he parcels out hints about what an unreliable narrator his hero can be. Elliot goes into such detail, for instance, about how he carefully apportions his morphine use to avoid addiction, that it quickly becomes clear he's only trying to convince himself that he's not an addict. And his paranoia about the world at large – always seeing and hearing the name of the nefarious E Corp (which has a logo that resembles Enron's) as “Evil Corp” – offers some tonal variety in a show that would otherwise be at risk of becoming overly dour.
Because it's so intensely focused on Elliot, and because it keeps narrowly side-stepping the various traps it lays for itself, the “Mr. Robot” pilot is the kind of perilous achievement that didn't necessarily promise a great series to come. But the second episode feels very much of a piece with the first, and continues to demonstrate that Malek was long overdue for this kind of role.
USA's been moving away from its “blue skies” brand over the last few years, with mixed creative success. If they're still looking for a new show to define what the network's about, they may have found it with this one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org