Elliot, the hacker protagonist of USA’s new drama Mr. Robot, looks like the dark corners of the Internet in human form. As played by Rami Malek, he’s pale and nervy-looking, and would be easy to miss in a crowd if it weren’t for his hollow stare. Elliot suffers from crippling social anxiety and mostly interacts with people by stalking them online, but he’s a well-meaning hacker, who despises his day job at a banking conglomerate and works at night to try to overthrow it. This, it seems, is the closest thing the 21st century gets for a hero: Despite airing on a typically stodgy network and being saddled with a ridiculous title, Mr. Robot is an angry, surprisingly effective screed against the current inequities of the world.
Much of this is thanks to Malek’s outstanding lead performance, which shoulders the burden of ranty voice-over narration (typically the death knell for a show’s credibility) and invests Elliot with sympathy, despite the fact that he’s, well, a bit of a creep. The hour-long pilot, which has been airing on YouTube for weeks but premieres on USA tonight, sets larger plot arcs in motion and has plenty of typical story elements seen a million times before, like Elliot pining for a pretty coworker. What feels different is that it’s presenting an antihero who doesn’t repeat the established norms of the role. Elliot isn’t some roguish charmer who can’t control his darker impulses—he’s a clinically depressed young man lashing out at a society he can’t fit into. That doesn’t mean he isn’t doing the right thing, but much of the show’s tension revolves around the question of whether he’s doing it for the right reasons.
A creature of the Internet, Elliot does cybersecurity for the evil corporation that employs him while exposing evildoer CEOs in his side gig as an online vigilante. As he explains to his first target, a coffee-shop owner who downloaded child pornography, Elliot initially started investigating the owner’s servers just because he used the wi-fi at his cafés and couldn’t help but snoop. He can’t summon up the courage to show up at a friend’s birthday drinks, but he happily worms his way into everyone’s private information online. Sometimes, he catches criminals in the act, but at other times, like when he’s with his therapist (Gloria Reuben), his meddling feels like a downright violation. Elliot knows the dark secrets of everyone in his life, even if he never speaks up to reveal them.
The show’s creator, Sam Esmail, who wrote Mr. Robot as a feature film before adapting it for television, is clearly hoping to underscore how vulnerable privacy is in the Internet age. On social media, people reveal much about their personal lives, and the rest is laid bare via bank accounts, investments, and the like, leaving many vulnerable to the machinations of Elliot and friends. Mr. Robot does well in cultivating a sense of paranoia without coming off across like a lecture on the perils of the 21st century—there’s no need for it to mention the NSA, or Edward Snowden, or any other real-life horror story of online surveillance out loud, since it’s so woven into the fabric of the show.
Elliot’s online Robin Hood act attracts the attention of a grungy hacker called Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who invites him to join his mysterious collective and upend the corporate system on a much larger scale. This is where the show skates closest to the long-standing clichés of hackerdom, dating back to ‘90s camp classics like Johnny Mnemonic or Hackers, which essayed that subculture as a collective of super-cool punks in army jackets wearing offbeat accessories (goggles, spiked collars) and ranting against the man. Mr. Robot, naturally, dresses like a homeless person and runs his operation out of an abandoned warehouse in Coney Island.
It’s a little cutesy, and Slater has never been the kind of performer who plays small. But Mr. Robot manages to pull it off, partly because it needs levity (Elliot’s house-bound stalking feels very grim at times) and partly because the set-up gives the show the kick it needs to serve as a long-term prospect. This isn’t just a diatribe against the system that rumbles about wealth inequality and the ongoing misdeeds of the one percent. It’s a dark fantasy that might actually see that system overthrown, and explore the consequences, good and bad. The show wants viewers to root for Elliot, but not without forgetting that he represents something frightening. There’s a self-seriousness that might not have been predicted from a show called Mr. Robot, but if viewers can run with it, it could be one of TV’s most surprising summer discoveries.