TV Review: “Mr. Robot” (USA)

It’s actually rather rare that I find a television series that so captures my attention that I binge-watch an entire season in a weekend.  However, USA’s Mr. Robot is just one of those shows that it’s impossible to stop watching once you’ve begun.  It’s rather like what would have happened had Fight Club and The Matrix met, fell in love, and produced a trippy and unsettling love child.  At once a thriller and a rebuke of the world that we have made in our own broken image, Mr. Robt lifts itself above the other dross that USA has yet provided, proving that the network may finally be ready to meaningfully compete with the other major producers in the premium cable arena.

It’s rather hard to sum-up a series as complex as Mr. Robot in a paragraph, but here goes.  The series follows Elliot Alderson, a brilliant yet psychologically tormented hacker as he finds himself drawn inexorably into the world of the fscociety, an elusive group of anarchist hackers determined to bring about the revolution that will over turn the corrupt system that we currently live in.  Leading that group is an enigmatic figure named Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), who gradually emerges as Elliot’s alter-ego, constantly pushing him to do those things that he, at some levels, knows he shouldn’t do.

I’ve always enjoyed Rami Malek in the small parts that he has so far managed to gain (does anyone remember his stellar performance in The War Home? No? Sigh).  He really outdoes himself here, and his gaunt, almost skeletal features with his searing, piercing eyes seem to pin us and draw us in simultaneously.  He constantly speaks to us in the audience (we assume, though it’s never clear precisely who the “you” is that he refers to).  In some ways, the show positions the presumed viewer as not just complicit with him, but also conjoined to his psyche in ways that are at once compelling and disturbing.  We’re never quite sure where we stand with him, whether we are indeed his imaginary friend, whether we are some other imagined spectator, or if there is yet some other spectatorial position that we have not yet determined.  The show seems to enjoy toying with us, and therein lies one of its greatest pleasures.

The series is in many ways a needling (and much-needed) rebuke to our digital, capitalist culture, one in which we have all been reduced not only to endlessly consuming machines, but also to little bits of data and freefloating capital that flit around the globe without a center.  The series is in many ways about the signature loss of control–or perhaps abrogation of control on our own parts–that has become so much a part of the (post)modern condition.  That is what makes it

As interesting as Elliott is, however, he is surrounded by characters who add depth and complexity to the affair, including his sister, his therapist, his childhood friend, and of course his sinister doppeleganger Mr. Robot, brought to life by the inimitable Christian Slater.  He serves as both the series’ and Elliot’s bitter conscience, constantly reminding what us of what is at stake.  And hovering at the edge of the narrative is the enigmatic Tyrell, a cunning and ambitious executive, always seeking more power, no matter what it takes.

Aesthetically, Mr. Robot compels us to watch and listen, engaging us at the level of both the senses and the intellect.  In my view, it is impossible to divorce the series’ aesthetics from the critiques that it consistently lobs at our hypersaturated late capitalist culture.  The haunting music–which ranges from synthesized sounds to the soothing strains of various classical pieces–works both with and against what is happening on the screen.  The music stimulates and unsettles us, constantly shifting registers to reflect the inherently unstable nature of the world that the series brings to life.

It would have been very easy for Mr. Robot to fall easily into the trap of being a cobbled-together mash-up of Fight Club, The Matrix, and sundry other films about broken men desperately trying to make sense of the broken world around them.  Fortunately, however, Mr. Robot does not do that, but instead builds upon that earlier work in order to produce a work that explores the darkest and most broken parts of our collective psyches.  While the contemporary television landscape is littered with the shattered psyches of numerous antiheroes (and a few antiheroines), Mr. Robot stands above many of those in its continued insistence upon its own, and our, complicity in this utterly destructive system.

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