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Vigilante Computer Geeks Reign In The Addictive 'Mr. Robot'

Rami Malek plays genius hacker Elliot Alderson in <em>Mr. Robot.</em>
David Giesbrecht/USA Network
Rami Malek plays genius hacker Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot.

If the detective was the defining pop hero of the 20th century, in the 21st, it's the hacker. From The Matrix to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — not to mention Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — hackers have become inescapable. But where detectives work to restore social order, hackers manipulate all those ethereal ones and zeroes to disrupt and maybe even overthrow it.

You find this radicalism and much more in USA Network's Mr. Robot, the addictive new psychological thriller that — from its trenchant themes to the casual diversity of its characters and production team — is probably the most modern show on TV. Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot doesn't merely usher us into a paranoid world that's a heightened version of our own. We enter it through the voice-over of a delusional vigilante hacker whose perceptions aren't exactly reliable.

His name is Elliot Alderson, a lonely genius played by Rami Malek, a fascinatingly soulful actor who manages to be both pop-eyed and hollow-eyed at the very same time. Elliot spends his days working at a digital security firm with his childhood friend Angela (played by Portia Doubleday) and his nights hacking other people's personal lives and doing small hits of morphine. He's horrified by a culture in which "we collectively thought Steve Jobs a great man, even though we know he made billions off the backs of children."

Elliot harbors a special loathing for a multinational he calls Evil Corp that's like the monstrous love child of Google and Halliburton. That hatred finds a purpose when he's approached by a mysterious anarchist known as "Mr. Robot" (played by Christian Slater) who leads him to a Coney Island arcade to meet a cabal called fsociety. Fsociety plans to take down Evil Corp — and The System.

The story that follows is so strewn with trapdoors and nerd bait it would take an hour to summarize it. Suffice it to say that Elliot gets involved with drug dealers, rival hacker groups, a feisty female cyber whiz (played by Carly Chaikin) and a sociopathic Evil Corp exec (Swedish actor Martin Wallstrom), whose ambitious wife makes Lady MacBeth look like Marge Simpson.

Now, Mr. Robot is not wholly original. Esmail has clearly read cyberpunk masters like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and studied the work of director David Fincher — every episode seems to echo something from one of Fincher's movies. Yet he wields these influences well. Painstaking in its photography and musical choices, Esmail's show pulls off the tricky feat of telling a gripping story about keyboard tappers that doesn't make computer geeks cringe. It captures the psychic dislocations of these days when our busy on-screen lives — and personas — are changing old notions of the self.

Esmail uses Elliot's paranoid radicalism to explore the feeling that our lives are dominated, if not run, by vast corporate and governmental forces that seemingly can't be controlled by conventional means, by either the right or the left. Elliot's dream of toppling Evil Corp is a fantasy of massive social change being created by a few hackers, a fantasy that, thanks to Assange and Snowden, no longer seems wholly preposterous. This is revolutionary politics for an age when most people can't be bothered.

It should be noted that Esmail neither endorses nor condemns Elliot's and fsociety's plans. Even as the show portrays its hero as essentially benevolent, Elliot's guerrilla attempts to improve the world sometimes succeed — but sometimes they have disastrous unintended consequences.

Mr. Robot taps into more visceral feelings, too. It feeds our uneasy awareness that everything we once thought private no longer is. These days, we leave a trail of pixels behind us, be it emails, online purchases, medical records or membership in the recently hacked adultery website Ashley Madison. You know who you are. Watching Elliot effortlessly troll his friends' and enemies' personal lives, you'll probably think of buying one of those programs intended to safeguard all your passwords. Just hope it wasn't designed by a real-world Mr. Robot.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.
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