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TV Quickshots #31

Mr. Robot (USA; 2015-Present)

Opening its first season with a blast of consumerism-critiquing iconoclasm and highly particular potentiality, this acclaimed series about troubled anti-corporate computer hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his inculcation in a daring, revolutionary hacktivist plot led by the unpredictable titular figure (played by Christian Slater) reverts to soapy melodramatic plot turns before too long (murder! sadomasochism! gangland intrigue! murder again! secret family connections!). But it never abandons its sharply questing writing, its uneasily-framed cinematography, and its committed, mercurial performances. And it is always eminently watchable.

Working as an engineer at cyber security firm Allsafe, Elliot’s practical and intellectual brilliance melds with near-debilitating psychological problems and social awkwardness. Perhaps to assuage manifest misanthropic tendencies as well as to address latent guilt about past family trauma and corporate servitude, Elliott hacks the people around him, learning every private detail of their lives through email, social media, bank and credit card records, and anything else about them that is within his digital reach: his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), her doofus boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport), his boss Gideon (Michel Gill), his neighbour, drug dealer, and semi-girlfriend Shayla (Frankie Shaw), even his therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben).

Elliott also wields his hacking prowess as a tool for social justice and personal retribution. The series’ arresting opening scene shows him exposing the child pornography habit of a coffee shop franchise owner to police; he later blackmails the married man having an affair with Krista into breaking it off (and giving Elliott his dog) and gets Shayla’s drug-lord supplier jailed for this crimes as well. But his true outlet is an insurrectionist anti-corporate hacktivist cell known as fsociety, helmed by a loose-cannon fanatic known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) and also including a firebrand hacker named Darlene (Carly Chaikin). fsociety recruits Elliott (or is it vice versa?) for a grand anarchist scheme to infiltrate the vast server farms of the world’s largest corporation, technology and financial giant E Corp (nicknamed Evil Corp by Elliott and other critics of its activities, and sometimes even by its employees), and permanently wipe the reams of data stored there.

Created by Sam Esmail, Mr. Robot is such a particular piece of television craft with such rich and often nuanced things to say about modern corporatism and technology-inf(l)ected life that it’s easy to miss its clear influences. David Fincher is the most obvious point of reference. The chilling noir-ish view of digital age alienation suggests The Social Network, whose memorable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is taken as a model for Mac Quayle’s flittering (and, if anything, superior) electronic soundtrack to Elliott’s mounting troubles. Fight Club is an even bigger inspiration, although Mr. Robot thankfully leaves out its tendency towards fascistic masculinity. It does borrow a key portion of Fight Club‘s revolutionary activist group Project Mayhem’s grand plan to undermine corporate capitalism by wiping out all consumer debt, as well as (double spoiler coming) the protagonist’s disassociative identity disorder. The show tips its hat to these roots by utilizing an instrumental version of the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”, featured at the conclusion of Fight Club, at a key moment late in the first season.

Mr. Robot‘s dominant tones of paranoia and alienation are consistently, strikingly conveyed through its cinematography, and specifically through its framing, technically referred to as lower-quadrant framing. Without getting too deeply into the technical visual theory (which James Manning does for us in this helpful video essay), this show looks different from anything else on television on a consistent basis and therefore feels different. Its characters are stranded and disoriented within the frame, especially the wide-eyed, heavy-lidded Egyptian-American Malek, who finds the distinction between reality and fantasy, the tangible and the digital, ever more difficult to discern. Mr. Robot has its foibles and its melodramatic tangents and can take it self too seriously by half, but it might be the sharpest and most trenchant narrative and metaphorical exploration of how we live now airing on American TV.

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Categories: Reviews, Television
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