Saturday, 6 February 2016

MR ROBOT Series 1 review

Elliot Alderson is mad as hell, and he's not gonna take it anymore. Very luckily for us.

Live in New York long enough and this is what'll happen.
(Image copyright: USA Network)

In terms of TV drama, the start of this year has been a bit meh: there seems to be nothing worth watching on the terrestrial channels, unless you fancy obligatory Sunday night costume pomp, this time around with the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Increasingly, it seems, online is the place to look for challenging new fare. Even so, it’s not very often that a drama comes along and has me sitting up straight and wide-eyed from the opening minutes.

At my bleakest, usually when I’m on the top deck of a bus on Monday morning looking out at a rain-sodden Welling high street on the way to the Job Centre, I despair at the grey, faceless, exhausting sludge contemporary life seems to have become (at least, if you’re consistently broke and can’t get back into a decent paying job). Thank God, then, for Sam Esmail’s Mr Robot, which completely nails that contemporary sense of dislocation, alienation and frustration.

In a nutshell: New York cybersecurity engineer Elliot Alderson (Rami Malik, above) is recruited by a mysterious older man known only as ‘Mr Robot’ (Christian Slater, in a career-resurrecting performance) into group of cyber anarchists who plan to destroy the corporate giant E Corp – or ‘Evil Corp’ – and eradicate worldwide debt.

It’s a sign of the radical chops of Mr Robot that E Corp’s logo is a lawyer-worrying lift from the emblem used by the Enron Corporation, which used to be one of America’s largest. This energy company based in Houston, Texas, went bankrupt in 2001 due to financial mismanagement, and that had far-reaching financial implications for the world economy. With its direct allusions to the Enron scandal, Mr Robot suggests that what you see in the media may not be the real story, as Mr Robot’s group of hacktivists fsociety – three guesses for what the ‘f’ stands for – incriminate E Corp’s CEO with the financial corruption of his own company. 

The message is clear: this a gloves-off, modern battle between cyber Davids and corporate Goliaths, underlined by clips of Julian Assange, the founder of the classified information-sharing website Wikileaks. The series has a fantastic premise: if all personal and corporate information is now digital, all information can, potentially, be hacked, corrupted and used to blackmail.

What really sets Mr Robot from its cyber thriller contemporaries (such as they are) are the characters. Whereas Breaking Bad began with an ensemble that were, more or less, level headed but went off the rails, to a man and woman Esmail’s characters are dysfunctional, angry or screwed up to start with, all because of modern life. Elliot’s father died of leukemia and he was brought up by an abusive mother; consequently, as an adult, he has clinical depression, social anxiety and can be cripplingly lonely. To cope, he snorts crushed morphine tablets and cyberhacks people he doesn’t like. It’s a remarkable, unnerving performance by Rami Malek, amplified by the way his eyes seem to swell with paranoia at the deplorable state of the world around him.

Elsewhere, his frustrated artist neighbour Shayla (Frankie Shaw) is a drug dealer sexually bullied by her drug contact; Elliot’s childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) struggles with her executive job, while her boyfriend Ollie (Ben Rappaport) is secretly addicted to sex through internet chat rooms. At the other end of the social scale, Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), the ambitious Senior Vice President of E Corp, is a sado-masochist who – in shades of Fight Club – copes with stress by paying tramps so he can beat them up.

Put like that it sounds over the top and a bit silly, but the performances are underplayed and totally convincing, not least because the characters always surprise you by not behaving how you’d expect. (The end of the second episode, in particular, will shock you.) You accept it all because, if you’ve lived in a city, you’ll recognise what isolating, socially undermining and brutal environments they can be. The art direction picks up on this by casting everything in the kind of bland, fluorescent, grey light you find in anonymous city office blocks and anonymous city bedsits.

As well as all this volatile content, there’s an extra existential layer to Mr Robot. Elliot is seeing a psychiatrist who warns him about relapsing into having delusions, so as you watch events unfold, the nagging feeling persists that it might all be in his head. Particularly because Elliot’s voiceover directly addresses the audience, drawing them into his world view. Trying to tease fact from fantasy is all part of the twisted fun.

I love it. At last, a series has come along that directly embraces the raging urban malcontent that, at the moment, I’m feeling like. Elliot may be far from perfect – that’s part of his appeal – but, in something of a first, he’s a major TV character who has to struggle with serious mental health issues.

For that alone, Mr Robot is worth your time.

No comments:

Post a Comment