MR. RO­BOT: SEA­SON 1

FROM NOW / CERT. 18

Empire (UK) - - REVIEW - JAMES DYER

WHEN CA­BLE chan­nel USA Net­work an­nounced Mr. Ro­bot last year, the re­sponse was weary in­dif­fer­ence. Af­ter all, hack­ers rant­ing anti-cap­i­tal­ist screeds were so 2014, while its star was a char­ac­ter ac­tor best known for play­ing the pharaoh in Night At The Mu­seum. Now, buoyed by crit­i­cal ac­claim and with a pair of Golden Globes bounc­ing around in its back­pack, Sam Es­mail’s jit­tery tech thriller is get­ting the at­ten­tion it de­serves.

What Michael Mann failed to do with $100 mil­lion and a box of jazzy CGI, Es­mail and di­rec­tor Niels Ar­den Oplev (2009’s The Girl With The Dragon Tat­too) man­age in a sin­gle, hour-long pi­lot: they make us­ing com­put­ers look fun. We don’t need byte’s-eye views of data skit­ter­ing down glow­ing path­ways — just a re­lat­able, be­liev­able char­ac­ter ex­ploit­ing hu­man fal­li­bil­ity to un­earth close-kept se­crets: be they cor­po­rate mis­con­duct or a ther­a­pist’s predilec­tion for anal porn.

That the first episode plays like a movie is no ac­ci­dent. Orig­i­nally con­ceived as a fea­ture, this first sea­son marks what would have been the first act of Es­mail’s film — sub­se­quently re-worked and pitched for tele­vi­sion af­ter grow­ing be­yond its orig­i­nal scope. Es­mail’s in­flu­ences (among them Taxi Driver, A Clock­work Or­ange, Fight Club and The Ma­trix) are worn proud and loud, and Mr. Ro­bot makes no apol­ogy for its cin­e­matic as­pi­ra­tions.

The char­ac­ter at the heart of the show is El­liot, a nervy recluse with the so­cial skills of a lunch­box, cursed with a menu of un­spec­i­fied per­son­al­ity

BYTE CLUB

disor­ders that ren­der him in­ca­pable of nor­mal hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. In­stead, he moves through the world alone, aided by a care­fully ad­min­is­tered mor­phine reg­i­men and con­nect­ing with peo­ple by vi­o­lat­ing their per­sonal data. It’s a harm­less, if creepy, ex­is­tence un­til he be­comes en­tan­gled with masked hack­tivist group ‘fso­ci­ety’, fronted by a flam­boy­antly nutso Chris­tian Slater as the ti­tle char­ac­ter. Along with Mr. Ro­bot and his rag-tag band of nerd vig­i­lantes, El­liot ex­e­cutes an elab­o­rate plan to take down über-con­glom­er­ate E Corp (or ‘Evil Corp’ as El­liot dubs them), eras­ing all the world’s debt into the bar­gain.

El­liot’s mis­align­ment with so­cial norms, il­le­gal sec­ond life (his day job is cy­ber-se­cu­rity for Evil Corp them­selves) and per­sis­tent nar­ra­tion brings to mind Dex­ter, ex­cept with server racks in­stead of kill rooms. He’s an awk­ward, frag­ile and deeply vul­ner­a­ble pro­tag­o­nist, played to per­fec­tion by the show’s se­cret weapon: saucer-eyed star Rami Malek. Shoul­der­ing most of the dra­matic load, Malek’s func­tion as the show’s nar­ra­tor and prin­ci­ple point of view places him at the heart of al­most ev­ery scene, each of which he qui­etly steals, even from Slater’s ma­ni­a­cal grand­stand­ing.

When El­liot does take a back seat, the sec­ondary plot­lines are picked up by his child­hood (and only) friend, An­gela (Por­tia Dou­ble­day), and Evil Corp’s VP Of Tech­nol­ogy, Tyrell Wel­lick (Martin Wall­ström). The lat­ter in par­tic­u­lar lends the show a sin­is­ter tone. Tyrell (a nod to Blade Run­ner’s cor­po­rate over­lord) is a darkly preda­tory char­ac­ter, nei­ther ally nor true an­tag­o­nist, with a pen­chant for vi­o­lent tantrums and BDSM with his heav­ily preg­nant wife. The sec­ondary threads twine around the cen­tral story be­fore (de­lib­er­ately) un­der­min­ing it com­pletely, when it be­comes ap­par­ent to the viewer just how un­re­li­able our de­ranged nar­ra­tor re­ally is.

It’s here where Mr. Ro­bot truly shines. That there’s a third-act rug-pull may seem like a spoiler, but Es­mail’s pres­tige is heav­ily sign­posted from episode one. El­liot’s in­ner voice man­i­fests within the show’s re­al­ity (his nick­name ‘Evil Corp’ is adopted even by its CEO), re­sult­ing in a deliri­ous, dream-like qual­ity and clear in­di­ca­tion that ev­ery­thing is not what it seems.

A zeit­geisty ex­plo­ration of cy­bert­er­ror­ism in the mod­ern age, shot through a ni­hilis­tic lens, this is among 2015’s best shows. The fi­nale is a curve­ball — nei­ther what you ex­pect, nor nec­es­sar­ily what you want — but it marks the end of a sharply writ­ten, re­fresh­ingly orig­i­nal ride.

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