Mr. Robot
Mr. Robots or a vase?

I started watching Mr. Robot with even more skepticism than usual for an untested show. Oh god, a show about hacking? Oh god2, a show about hacking on the USA Network? But a smartie I trusted gave it a thumbs-up, so I swallowed my doubts and booted it up.

It’s…good. It’s not consistent, though that may be at least partly deliberate, and it’s hampered by weaknesses that feel inexplicable, but it is possessed of a unique vision–and that, all by itself, sets it apart from most TV, nerd or otherwise. It’s so weird and so well adapted to its medium that it feels like an environmental art installation designed to challenge our perceptions of a given space. For Mr. Robot, that space is USA Network.

For those of you who have skipped right past it or opted out of cable, USA network is widely seen as a dumping ground for lowbrow culture, from game show reruns to pro wrestling to Tekwar; it has (or had?) a rep for adding women in bikinis to every scene in which they were vaguely plausible. This is not where we go for heady mindfucks. And yet.

Mr. Robot has great fun playing with the viewers’ preconceptions. Mental illness is depicted as awkward and confusing and uncomfortable instead of menacing or, worse, meaningful. Casual drug use is just a thing people do. Hacking looks difficult and boring. A technothriller series is actually a probing dissection of late-stage capitalism and alienation. There’s a good case to be made that this show couldn’t work on any other network, as it’s at its best when viewers’ expectations are set to escapism rather than intellectual engagement. Subversion turns into smugness when it’s courted*.

But there are legit problems that don’t seem to be part of the installation. The most sociopathic bad guy turns out to be bisexual when he needs to be, because of course he is. The acting and casting are kind of all over the place; I thought maybe the producers had done that deliberately to fit the network more closely, but then I sobered up. Nothing’s perfect.

Elliot, the main character, is nimbly played by Rami Malek, whose eyes convey so much they deserve a special Emmy of their own. Suburgatory’s Carly Chaikin uses her unusually affectless face to great effect in a supporting role that develops organically through the season. Christian Slater plays himself, as usual. Much of the rest of the cast ranges from adequate to boring, with a few exciting (if underused) bit players floating around here and there.

The plot is super-twisty–it’s about mental illness and corporate malfeasance, so duh–and is clever enough to surprise viewers even when we’re expecting something. This isn’t a spoiler post, so I won’t dive deep, but the writing is nice and tonight even when the dialogue mirrors the awful conventions of the genre. Mr. Robot is a Trojan Horse, delivering something that feels real and true wrapped up in the confines of a crappy genre show.

* Yeah, that means you’re doomed because you’re reading this piece. You should still watch the damn thing.