If I had a budget and time, I would have hoped to have created a show along the lines of the critically acclaimed USA Network show Mr. Robot (#MrRobot). It not only goes into the vulnerable artifice of our shallow, consumer culture and social media driven lives, yet it seems to upend it, having you, by the end rooting for a revolution to destroy it, while praising the little moments of average people as the true beauty in our society no matter who you are. It is a show the 1% crowd doesn’t want you to see.
The title Mr. Robot is the handle of the seeming leader (Christian Slater) of a hactivist, insurrectionist anarchist group called FSociety (get the joke?). However the show is portrayed through the eyes of a near psychotic, yet brilliant security software engineer named Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). He is suffering from some serious trauma stemming from the death of his father and an unloving mother, who is no longer in his life. He essentially has bouts of severe loneliness, which he deals with by 1.) hacking into people’s social media and email accounts as an observer and 2.) nulling himself to sleep using opiates like morphine. His drug problem is dealt with using anti-withdrawal drugs at the shows entrance, though, anyone who has seen a show before can see that this will soon become an issue.
Soon enough, Mr. Robot makes contact with Elliot and he is lured into FSociety. Within a very short period of time, he is plotting the take down of the show’s fictional multinational conglomerate, E Corp., which, Elliot nicknames “Evil Corp”. As we, the audience, are referred to as a figment of Elliot’s imagination, as his imaginary friend, we see much of the show through his eyes (though by no means all), from episode one on, we will always hear E Corp referred to as Evil Corp. Evil they are, as they are the ones who were involved in the death of Elliot’s father as well as the mother of his best friend (Portia Doubleday) Angela’s mother through a toxic waste leak.
Evil Corp is omnipresent within the show, serving as a stand in for Monsanto, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Koch Industries, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, the three Credit Score companies and about a dozen other companies that reside on the Dow Jones. While this is highly unrealistic, it does serve the show well, focusing us on one singular villain without getting too far into the complicated maze of the corporate process, nor alienating any sponsors for that matter. FSociety’s goal is to take them down by erasing the world’s debt record, which may or may not sound familiar to you.
The plot is far from original, though a show so focused on hacking is. A noob Linux guy like me is pretty overwhelmed by all of the commands, though it is never really an important part of the story. The fact that it is astonishingly accurate, even being praised by Edward Snowden, is actually very surprising and refreshing. I grew up with crappy hacker films like Hackers which they even make a hilarious reference to in one of the shows episodes, with a pretty hilarious jaded sequence that is part of a hallucinatory drug withdrawal scene. The irony here is, that Hackers tried to be flashy and show hacking culture as cool skateboarders (it was one of Angelina Jolie’s first films) yet Mr. Robot’s drug scenes and club scenes do the opposite, down playing the gritty subculture stuff in a very authentic yet sometimes frightening way. While the actors are all perhaps a little too attractive for the roles, it doesn’t detract from the show’s realistic feeling, and is perhaps the only Hacking movie or show that I’ve seen that is accurate on the tech side and sub-culture / counter-culture side (though I will give a nod to War Games as they invented the term War-Dialer).
The show’s true excellence is in the dialogue and personal relationships. Elliot’s complex relationships with his drug supplying neighbor Shayla (Frankie Shaw) or the outrageous and unpredictable Darlene (Carly Chalkin), his psychiatrist Krista (Gloria Reuben) to the father-figure Mr. Robot are all very complicated, especially since through his eyes, we know everything about many of the characters right off the bat. His interactions in people’s lives often lead him to be a good Samaritan, trying to take down bad people involved with people he deems as good, hell, the show begins with him taking down a child pornographer, and that is the tip of the iceberg.
The other characters have their moments to shine outside of Elliot’s interactions as well in ways that feel realistic and sincere. A scene between Elliot’s boss Gideon (Michel Gill) who talks with his partner Harry (Randy Harrison) about Gideon’s struggling security firm, in which he feels like a failure. The interaction is the kind of thing that any couple of any sex or orientation would say if they were genuinely in love. It doesn’t feel forced in for PC or anything like that, it’s a major character’s secondary plot-line converging against the main story and it’s about a character I felt to genuinely care about throughout the series. Another brief moment is about one of the most silent characters, Trenton (Sunita Mani) who reveals her reason for being involved with FSociety and it is a highly relevant speech that explains much of the anti-American sentiment that is so baffling to mainstream America that resides in American raised Muslims.
The show’s first season is far from perfect. The villains can feel a little cartoonish at times, though anyone that has worked in the corporate environment will tell you that it really isn’t far from the truth. Many of these people are uni-focused on success and capital gain, and everyone else is just a pawn in their world. They are willing to go to extremes to do it and are utterly phony and despicable in an obscene amount of cases. As there are good people everywhere, and power doesn’t always corrupt people, it should be noted that some decent people do rise, though from my experience, it is rarer and rarer the higher you go. The maniacal E Corp VP Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) is an example of the former and is as complicated as any character on the show. As the show draws much on the insanity angle, you will be surprised where his character goes, especially with his wife (Stephanie Corneliussen). Other Evil Corp Execs, such as Michael Cristofer pretty much nail everything that you love and hate about corporate American conservatives: charming yet utterly, utterly vicious in their appraisal of the weak, which includes everyone underneath them, including you.
The acting is genuinely superb. While Christian Slater won best Supporting actor, an honor which he deserves, I think the real surprise is Rami Malek who was nominated for Best Actor in the Golden Globes. He plays an underscored character with his eyes so well that you almost miss him when it cuts to other scenes. That is unusual for a show that is mostly centered around him. His character is written well, sure (in the voice over which is done in post, another skill entirely), though his lines on screen are mainly one or two words, leaving him playing an awkward, psychotic, genuine genuis with severe social anxiety disorder and massive depression with non-verbal communication, which is a very, very hard thing to do. He owns the character from the get go, and it gets crazier and crazier to the point that you are going down the rabbit hole with him. Yet he possess that insanity and makes it viable and passable in our world of appearances matter.
I can’t say every actor as good as the two above, though no one phoned it in. From Carly Chalkin’s easily over-acted role, which she nails, to Martin Wallström’s artificial corporate turned insane role, which he also leaves you feeling severely uncomfortable (another hard to pull off trick) to Micheal Gill’s attempts to help save Elliot to the FSociety wiseman Romero (Ron Cephas Jones), to the insane gangsters led by the purely frightening Fernando Vera (Elliot Villar), all the main roles and virtually all of the secondary roles will never take you out of the story and make you believe their characters.
There is even a brief though important role played by BD Wong, one of my favorite actors, so I’m biased. Though you may be surprised where and when he shows up.
While many of the actors are young, many are long time underrated struggling actors (which explains why this can be made by the USA Network. The casting was perfect right down to the stock photos they choose are just spot on, and nobody phones it in.
As a musician, I rarely mention the music unless it stands out. In this case it does. Mac Quayle, best known for Drive and American Horror Story: Freak Show, really stands out, using all the old to new school techno tricks, with a tinge of Tangerine Dream’s brilliant score for Miracle Mile thrown in (modernized of course). You will notice it, though it will keep you in the story. A rare trick for a score. I have nothing but positive things to say except one, they tend to use a couple of his scores over and over, a sign of the budget. The music is good enough that only someone like me would notice. Though by no means do I mind. I would just have been interested to see what he could have done with that.
How this got on TV is beyond me. They constant mother fucker references that may be muted make the show feel even more real than the Sopranos, though it’s not TV14. Keep this show, far, far away from anyone who isn’t college age or near it. This is HBO, which sadly, makes HBO be even more HBO, which is stupid because if I wanted to watch porn, it costs me far less. It features people getting shot in the head multiple times, semi-graphic light-core sex scenes of both gay and straight, though more than that, the entire subject matter of drugs and porn and sex and the jaded view of life in general should not be subjected to those to young to experience it.
The Social Commentary
Mr. Robot’s main draw is that it is truly a frightening mirror of our times. Our insecure and lonely existence is summed up in the show’s first 10 minutes, as our consumer culture and social media definition of our personas comes crashing down into a pile of credit card bills and virtual slavery to the top 1% of the top 1%. Our false heroes like Lance Armstrong, like Bill Cosby, like Mel Gibson are shown and it makes you cringe to ever believe in any of those people, knowing full well that you most likely admired at least one, possibly all three! Books that are publicized (even with similar themes) like the Hunger Games are not meant to incite us, they are meant to sedate us, like the drugs they feed us and the media they cram down our throats.
Though as the show progresses, you begin to see the Starbucks / Chipotle culture and it’s corporately planned out room painting and furniture schemes as another ploy to extract wealth from your pockets and hand it to a multinational force that does not invest in your community or you or anything about you unless they can get something for it. FSociety wears satirical Monopoly Man masks (the new Anonymous, replacement for the tired Guy Fawkes mask and a better one I might add).
Sure, a bit of the positives are not overlooked, including an argument about it being suits vs government (and you know how they handle things, as the chief argument) while a subtle idealogical battle in your own mind, if you allow it, will take place versus the absolute corporate domination of our political and social discourse vs the checks and balances of both vs the absolute domination of our government. A line is made “why can’t the people just take care of themselves” which is retorted by a big wig corporate hack “because the world is filled with stupid people, and I am paid well to be smart”. Brilliant!
Yet the world doesn’t quite work like that now does it? Even the makers of this film likely had to go through people who, through nepotism, connections or wealth, were able to make it. No lines on this commentary are included because that would easily be a bridge too far. Being born rich and smart is not the same as being born poor and smart, regardless of how much the Koch Brothers can claim they took a $billion and turned it into a $100 billion, it’s not the same thing as taking a dime and turning it into a dollar. That is where this series falls short.
Otherwise it nails our society as a skin deep, artificial, corporatized mess of a culture, summed up best in the last episode of the first season. The fake world of advertising and flash that funded the creation of the show is so ironic it is purely awesome, yet disturbing how little they care how much you care about how little they care. This show is the most real thing I have seen in a long time, which is why it is here on Soapblox. Though the fact that the sponsors of the show know you will sit at home and do nothing, not even speak out about it is as surprising as the unveiling of the pumpkin spiced latte is every Autumn. They don’t care if a show incites revolution because they control what you see and hear. If something becomes a problem, they solve it.
A slight spoiler here. There is a line in the last episode that explains just what I said better. You will have to see it to understand what I mean. Though keep in mine (now this is a spoiler) all of the footage at the end is from real events and a global revolution could happen.
While I don’t believe in revolution as a great tactic (it usually results in the same outcome) I am a firm believer in popular uprisings. Nothing gets the powerful squirming like the idea that their heads will be paraded around on a spike and tossed into the river.
As a historian, trust me. That may be graphic, though I am not here to candy coat reality for you.
Though ultimately this film is everything the right-wing hates. It shows the conservative corporate culture as the bad guys, consumer culture and social media as hollow, debt collectors as Wall Street bookies and gay people as, gasp, normal human beings. It shows sub-culture and counter-culture as a constant, hacking as easy to do and makes heroes of those that do combat the wage and debt slavery of the big corporations. With hardly a peep of religion.
It’s a right-winger’s worst nightmare.
Fun Personal Moments Not Mentioned
I can’t spoil anything. Though I will tell you some of my favorite moments in a vague sort of way and you should come back and compare notes.
1.) My absolute favorite moment is a person peeling Free Hours (AOL) Stickers off of 3.5″ Diskettes and placing them in a disk box because this is what I did in this time. They came so frequently you would get a box of diskettes in a week if you learned the simple power of plugging up the writable hole. Just as I did for tapes and VHS at the time (yes I am starting to show my age).
2.) The SNES and NES (Nintendo) cartridges and reference to Pentium 90 with an 800 MB (yes Megabyte) was classic. They had to turn everything away so you couldn’t see labels and even included a Chinese Genesis knock off system though you could see Windows 3.1 or perhaps OS2 running in blur so all of us from the BBS days knew what they were talking about.
3.) Lots of Linux stuff I have learned over the years seen taken to obscene measures. I started off in MSDOS, which is a rip-off of Unix, so when I started learning Linux I got all the extra commands and how they work. It was fascinating to see them at this level.
4.) The Wonder Wheel from Coney Island and the last of the original area in general that is soon to become some massive pleasure land eventually, though that is a subtle reference to the destruction of pure beauty that obtained that right through time, with replacement of something that will do what the original did in the first place. It makes me think of the Warriors at the very least, one of the best Rot-sploitation film designed to scare the old-lings. Keep that in mind.
5.) The East Broadway Lower East Side crap hole Eliot lives in. It’s true to character. I love rotting New York. Such a shame the 1%ers came in and bought it all up, since they were the ones who abandoned it in the first place. The Village is lame, SoHo has no artists and this infection is spreading to Brooklyn and beyond. It’s nice to know that parts of New York still suck! (as the young David Letterman would have said).
6.) The club scene when two main characters kiss on E and it really means nothing. I have seen that so many times (guys as well) that it was nice to see someone get it right. E or Molly is not a sexual drug. It is a sensual drug. Many don’t get it, including abusers of the substance!
7.) The scene when the gangsters roll off in a crappy car blasting club music. That is another authentic scene. In LA that is far more common, and the cars are usually better, though I maintain, 5 guys in a car is something to avoid, for reasons unspecified.
8.) I love New York Subways. I love all mass transit. Though I have ridden it in at least 14 cities including internationally, so I’m a transit nerd.
9.) The fact that FSociety hangs out in an arcade is awesome, especially that it includes a popcorn machine and a beer / lemonade / cola tap. That is like a childhood dream come true! I was lucky enough to have one of my birthday parties, at age 9, at the now destroyed, Malibu Grand Prix. Six of my friends and cousins got drivers licensees and tickets to race around in Go-Karts with unlimited nachos, popcorn, a hot dog and a few slices of pizza, along with a handful of tokens for the arcade. It didn’t cost my folks that much because we kept the party small, and Malibu Grand Prix didn’t make that much money at the place anyway, which is why it is now a Toyota Dealership. Still, it was my favorite party, even if I had to turn down many friends.
10.) There is a line about sometimes even stealing from a prick doesn’t make you a bad guy, because sometimes it means more makes a lot of sense to me. Life works in shades of grey. Good people steal to survive and bad people follow the letter of the law. Though why? Because the people starving have been screwed by the law, and the people who are following it, wrote it, like Goldman Sachs, and they wrote the law to steal from the poor.
11.) The fact that in the end evil is so ingrained in our system that a point is made to spell out that taking down one evil can’t take down all of them as there are too many to take down. It is black and white to see a world where one evil exists. There are always good people and bad people no matter where you go. I have known gangsters who became professionals, evangelicals, and rich kids who became escorts, porn makers and criminals. If you don’t get out of your bubble, you will never see this.
12.) Christian Slater’s big rant in the last episode about a “kingdom of bullshit” is pretty satisfying. I would love to quote it, though nuff said.
Overall, Mr. Robot is great and truly worth all the praise it has been getting lately. The acting to the writing to the music to the subject matter being so relevant, of all the shows I have binge watched lately, this one is truly worth the praise, though, as always, keep your expectations low. The more you watch it, the more people that watch it, the more that they squirm. If you cringe at paying for it, there are always ways.
While the ending of the first series may seem very familiar to anyone who has seen a certain film (I won’t spoil it), this is fleshed out better, written better and has a much more satisfying premise that promises to continue. How they will do that is anyone’s guess. I have several Christian Slater quotes ready to respond though none of them will reconcile the direction of the next season. It is anyone’s guess. I like that!
Mr. Robot is very fast and less friendly, in terms of tech terms, to those that don’t know said tech terms, though the writing is good enough to get passed the hurdle. You won’t need to know Linux or what a DDOS Attack is or what a proxy is or TOR or any other hacking lingo. It isn’t important, it just matters that it all happens to be accurate.
So go out and see this damn show already!