Review by C.J. Bunce
The term “mind-blowing” is one of the most over-used phrases on the Web. In truth, I am not sure I have ever seen anything I would call mind-blowing. Yet if something were to come close, it may be the pilot to USA Network’s new intense, psychological thrill ride, Mr. Robot. Although I haven’t seen roughly half of the pilots for the new series hitting the small screen this summer, of what I’ve seen this will top the watch list. That’s saying a lot considering the eight other new sci-fi series I previewed here at borg.com this past week: CW Network’s Stitchers, ABC’s The Whispers, Syfy’s Killjoys, Dark Matter, and The Expanse, TNT’s Proof, AMC’s Humans, and Netflix’s Between. And don’t forget about BBC America’s Orphan Black, CW’s iZombie, and Fox’s Wayward Pines, sci-fi series already airing. Never before have viewers had more new sci-fi options on TV to choose from.
With top-notch, successful series like Monk, Psych, Burn Notice, and White Collar under its belt, USA Network may have another winner on its hands, and prove once and for all you don’t have to be HBO or Showtime to produce compelling television.
Rami Malek (Night at the Museum, Medium, 24, Battleship, The Legend of Korra), stars as Elliot, a tech for a cyber-security consulting firm, a drug addict, a loner, a genius. I suspect we’re not supposed to know yet what he truly is: Hero, Villain, Vigilante, Cyber-terrorist, or something of each. He suffers from depression and possibly schizophrenia, he makes bad personal decisions, and his political views and odd mannerisms fuel his paranoia. Paranoia, suggesting someone is always watching, as he roams, cloaked under his hood, wandering the streets of New York City. Is any of this real, or it it all in his head? Will we ever know? Is Mr. Robot even sci-fi as the title would suggest, or a strange fantasy, or supernatural, or something entirely different? Filmed like a modern but dark and gritty, fourth-wall breaking Ferris Bueller and emitting the uneasy dread of an updated WarGames—Mr. Robot faces current social issues head on (and even the wall-breaking may not be real, and only something in Elliot’s mind). We last saw a show take on similar subversive themes in the excellent Syfy series Continuum.
With single-camera cinematography by Tim Ives, creator/writer Sam Esmail reaches right into our world of social networking and power in the hands of an elite group of decision makers and plunges the viewer into Elliot’s personal fears. Something almost painterly goes into each shot, often surreal like a Wes Anderson movie, yet the stylishness never slows down the pace of the action. In one set of scenes, an approaching Ferris wheel car off-camera appears to jar the actors and us out of our seats and keep us on our toes–twice. Elliot is unaffected.
Malek gives us a character first unlikable–his world is disturbing and ugly, yet this anti-hero quickly grows on you to be somehow sympathetic, his dodgy eyes, uneasiness, and jittery mannerisms will keep you on edge for the entire hour. The pilot may be the best pilot we’ve seen since the premiere of Lost. Rounding out the experience, like John Carpenter would use to support his own thriller, Mac Quayle (American Horror Story) provides an intense, thumping, almost Daft Punk-inspired soundtrack that speeds the narrative along.
Christian Slater, finally providing us a subdued, measured character against his often cocky style, plays a potential mentor who bridges Elliot’s more mundane tech job existence into something for more exciting–and dangerous. Co-star Portia Doubleday is engaging as his only real friend, Gloria Reuben (Falling Skies, Homicide, Timecop, 1990’s The Flash) plays his psychiatrist, and Martin Wallstrom is intriguing as a junior executive in a giant company Elliot wants to punish for its greed, pervasiveness, and incompetence.
If you ever wonder what that person sitting next to you on the subway does when he’s out of your eyesight, if you’re curious who is listening at the other end of your telephone and who is reading your emails, Mr. Robot is the psychological thriller for you. Is the covert organization called Mr. Robot real, a creation of the future or are we living it out now? So many themes and relationships are introduced in the feverishly paced pilot–the show could take us in any direction.
For a limited time, watch the entire first episode of Mr. Robot here:
Mr. Robot airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. Central on USA Network beginning June 24.