Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Mr. Robot" Has a Few Bugs

I think the biggest trouble I had with USA's cyberpunk thriller series "Mr. Robot" is that I saw Channel 4's "Utopia" and FX's "Fargo" first.  So all the things that "Mr. Robot" does well - the shock value, the violence, the over-the-top characters, and the interesting cinematography - I've already seen done better. 

Still, credit where credit is due.  The pilot is an extremely strong piece of television, where we're introduced to Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a depressed, paranoid, drug-using computer programmer, who works for a cybersecurity firm and hacks people's personal information after hours with frightening ease.  Socially anxious and increasingly alienated, he has few connections, aside from his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), who got him his current job, his psychiatrist Dr. Gordon (Gloria Reuben), and his neighbor and dug dealer, Shayla (Frankie Shaw).  One day, after shutting down a DDoS attack, he's approached by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of a hacker group called fsociety.  He's also targeted for recruitment by Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), an ambitious young executive at E Corp (which Elliot calls Evil Corp.), his firm's biggest client.

There are elements here that stand out as innovative and original.  The hacking that features in the show is reportedly technically accurate, and the hacker subculture is much more true to life than Hollywood usually manages.  I love that the lead is played by Rami Malek, who delivers a hell of a performance, and immediately stands out from the crowd due to the fact that he's ethnically Egyptian.  I like that the villain is a psychopath who is terrible at being a psychopath.  I like the brooding electronica score and bleak visuals.  The oppressive framing is a lot of fun.  I like the use of the unreliable narrator, and how this allows the show to simply call the evil corporation at the heart of the show Evil Corp. with a straight face.  I like that "Mr. Robot" manages to pull off a few genuine surprises.

I just wish it were better as a whole, cohesive show.  Frankly, the writing is mediocre and the characterization of everyone aside from Elliot is haphazard at best.  A lot of the clever ideas are rendered less effective by blunt handling.  I had a hard time differentiating Shayla and fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) for multiple episodes.  I'd ding Christian Slater for his bland portrayal of Mr. Robot except that the creators give him nothing to work with beyond a mystery that was too satisfied with itself.  The cast is good and smaller players like Michel Gill and Bruce Altman should get a lot of credit for giving their characters some nuance.  But then you have Tyrell, who despite Martin Wallström's best efforts, is essentially a Swedish Patrick Bateman rip-off, and seems to belong in a more outlandish, hyperreal kind of program.

Pacing is also a major problem.  The middle episodes in particular drag badly, as Elliot keeps getting sidetracked from his end goals by one crisis or another.  There's little sense of stakes and only occasional spurts of momentum.  In order for some of the big surprises to really have impact, we have to be on a limited information diet.  However, this means that Elliot gets sidelined for huge chunks of the show, leaving us with Angela or Tyrell as they pursue other agendas.  Now both of these storylines yield some good things eventually, but they really muck around with the structure of the series, often losing the subjective reality elements that made the pilot so compelling.
What I think really bothered me about "Mr. Robot" is that it thinks that it's smarter and edgier than it actually is.  It's terribly self-satisfied about doing such a good job with the hacking terms, to the point where a minor character actually points this out.  Sex and violence are constantly used for shock value, often in fairly distasteful ways.  So many characters are shallow, vapid, and act in ways that only disillusioned young internet nerds think people act.  And then there are the title screens, which are employed an awful lot like the ones for the "Fargo" series, except that creator Sam Esmail's name is brightly emblazoned on each one, like it's part of the title.  In short, "Mr. Robot" is exactly the kind of show you'd expect from someone like Elliott Alderson, if he were a real person.  And I don't trust that the show's creators understand how to use that.

I'm not unhappy that I finished the first season, but I think the second will almost certainly be less effective, and I'm on the fence as to whether to continue.  Without the surprises of the last few episodes, and with the novelty of the premise having worn off, how far can the creators take this? Will they turn to more shocks and more boundary-pushing or figure out how to actually build its characters?  The jury's still out, but I'm not hopeful for "Mr. Robot's" future.

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