Few announcements in the history of television have delighted me as much as the one from last summer about USA developing a hacker series titled Mr. Robot. As soon as I read the headline, I immediately started picturing the stereotypical USA original series — a beach, a hotshot protagonist who has a secret and/or is running away from his or her past, designer sunglasses, etc. — but starring an actual, Johnny-Five-style hacker robot named “Mr. Robot.” Oh God, was I ever excited. “BLEEP BLORP ROOTKIT BZZZ HONKHONK,” and so on. I wanted him to find a Mrs. Robot that looked like Rosie from The Jetsons and just hackhackhack all the live long day from a sunny condo in Miami.
(And what would happen if he accidentally hacked himself one day?! A lot of things, probably, including but not limited to me starting a letter writing campaign to the dang Peabody Awards.)
The following months brought good and bad news. Bad: Instead of an actual intelligent hunk of metal and wires, the show would be about “a young programmer, Elliot, who suffers from a debilitating anti-social disorder and decides that he can only connect to people by hacking them,” which doesn’t sound nearly as fun. Good: And I quote, “[Christian] Slater will star as Mr. Robot, a mysterious anarchist who recruits Elliot into an underground hacker organization intent on bringing down corporate America.” Christian Slater starring as a mysterious hacker anarchist named Mr. Robot on a USA summer series? Okay. Okay. I can work with this. Especially if his full name is, like, Dave Robot, but all the anarchists call him “Mr.” out of respect.
Point being: Between this and CBS’s unintentionally hilarious CSI: Cyber, I thought we were truly entering the golden era of silly hacker dramas. USA releasing this official poster for Mr. Robot did nothing to disabuse me of this notion.
But a funny thing happened on the way to GoofWatch Mountain. USA screened the pilot of Mr. Robot at SXSW this year, and the buzz was almost entirely positive. Then a few weeks ago the network put the whole first episode on YouTube, and I watched it, and, guys… Mr. Robot looks kinda good.
The facts, presented in two run-on sentences that contain mild spoilers: Rami Malek stars as Elliot, a socially awkward, morphine-snorting hacker super genius who does vigilante work in his free time and spends his days working for a computer security firm that protects the systems for one of the world’s biggest corporations, E Corp, which is pretty obviously based on Enron, and which Elliot refers to as “Evil Corp” in the internal monologues that serve as the show’s narration. And, yes, Christian Slater plays a mysterious anarchist who goes by Mr. Robot and who recruits Elliot to work for his secret hacker collective on Coney Island, with the goal of using Elliot’s insider access to wreak havoc on faceless conglomerates like E Corp, throwing the global economy into chaos and wiping out trillions in personal consumer debt.
It would be really easy for all of that to fall into the kind of traps CSI: Cyber falls into, both generalizing and sensationalizing things to the point that Bow Wow and company take down a criminal organization that hacked an amusement park to cause a roller coaster crash. (Actual episode.) Instead the show is faster, smarter, and darker (way, way darker), thanks mostly to Malek’s portrayal of Elliot as a well-meaning loner who can’t help but see the worst in everyone and everything. It’s a hard left turn from the types of show USA has become known for. I mean, the pilot episode — Season 1, Episode 1 — touches on child pornography, narcotics abuse, and an anarchist revolution. Royal Pains this ain’t.
All of this means two things: First, it means that somehow, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the USA original series titled Mr. Robot starring Christian Slater as the titular Mr. Robot appears to be highly watchable, especially as a summer series, living somewhere between its Wednesday night lead-in Suits and something you’d find on a premium cable network. Or, if I were to sum it up in a short, punchy quote they can use for future promotional materials: “Mr. Robot: Somehow okay!” (Apologies for the backhanded compliments here, producers of Mr. Robot. Still trying to wrap my head around this one.)
And second, it means that my wait for a breezy drama about a web-savvy robot looking for love amid the sand and surf of a scenic beachside community continues. Maybe next year.