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.