‘Mr. Robot’ Breaks Into More Than the Hacking Culture

Mr. Robot Premiere
Courtesy of USA Network

“Mr. Robot,” which premieres tonight on USA Network, could not be more timely. The hacker drama was greenlit just hours after the FBI confirmed it believes North Korea was behind the massive Sony Pictures Entertainment cyber-attack.

“I had nothing to do with that,” creator Sam Esmail jokes. With a laugh, he adds, “Obviously I don’t want what happened to Sony to happen, but I’ll take a series order any day of the week.”

Though “Mr. Robot” was in the works long before Sony’s crisis and even the 2014 photo hack, which exposed personal nude photos of many celebrities, Esmail says the incidents are only further proof that the subject matter has earned its place on television.

“People are seeing the consequences of some kids hacking into a computer network. It makes our show that much more believable and relatable to their world,” the writer and exec producer tells Variety. “Before, people didn’t quite get when a guy is on a computer how dangerous that can be, but now that it’s become more in the culture and people are witnessing it and seeing the real damage it can cause, I think they can buy into that a kid at a keyboard can be incredibly dangerous.”

Referring to “The Interview,” he added, “I mean, a whole studio had to cancel a movie release over it. People are leaving their jobs.”

“Mr. Robot” was first put on the map by winning the audience award at the SXSW festival earlier this year in Texas. The first episode also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and this past weekend’s inaugural SeriesFest in Denver, Co.

Pointing out the “obsessive” attention to detail in the writers’ room when it comes to the complicated language and complexities with hacking, Esmail and star Christian Slater both vouch for the series’ authenticity. “I was thrilled that there were some real tech guys there in Austin when we screened it and they were very complimentary with how realistic it is,” Slater recalls of the Texas-based SXSW. “That’s a good review you want to get from those guys.”

Rami Malek (pictured), who takes on a star-turning role as a young computer programmer who suffers from an anti-social disorder and connects to people by hacking them, tells Variety the series is unlike anything on television. “It’s extremely relevant and timely, and it’s written in the way that attracted me from a script point of view. It is very cinematic. I thought it was really creative and engaging.”

Esmail agrees that “Mr. Robot” uniquely stands out from past TV and film projects that have covered the hacking genre, resulting in “hokey, forced and inauthentic” subject matter. “I really wanted to do a show that represents what the hacker culture is,” he explains of the series’ genesis. “It’s fascinating, it’s compelling and the power that they have, it’s extraordinary.”

Even with all the relevance and room to learn, Esmail isn’t setting out to teach a course on Hacking 101. Rather, he’s hoping larger underlying themes will start up some chatter.

“There is an anger that I think everyone senses in society with where we’re at, especially since the financial collapse and the income inequality, not just in America, but internationally,” the EP says, alluding to Slater’s mysterious cult-leader-type character wanting to erase debt society, by way of luring young programmers, including Malek’s Elliot, into his secret hacking organization. “Debt labor is a huge, huge issue, and I don’t know if we’re trying to say something about it, but we definitely think it’s a conversation people should be having. I think we just want to bring it to the forefront.”

The dark drama subliminally provides commentary on current events — the pilot flashes images of Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby, for starters — which is fitting, as Esmail was inspired to start writing the script by the Arab Spring in 2011. “There is an event, unprecedented in the Middle East, where there were a bunch of young kids angry about what was going on who used technology and leveraged it against the older, controlling generation and really caused a change,” he says. “It’s that sort of revolutionary spirit that is intrinsic in the show.”

That very spirit is what Esmail hopes prevails. “I think it’s always going to be about characters and people, and not about the genre of the subject matter. At the end of the day, it’s about two guys trying to connect, and I think that’s a very universal, relatable theme that people can connect to,” he says. “I think the hacking thing adds that sexiness because we’ve never quite seen it in this way, but ultimately, I think it’s going to more about the people and less about the hacking.”

Slater, for one, says the characters is what drew him to the project. “The whole premise of the show is fascinating. I like the mysteriousness of the guy that not everything is revealed in the pilot,” the actor says of his character. “You don’t really know who this guy is and what the full agenda is.”

Malek shares the same sentiment: “It told a really special story, an inspiring story, yet a really conflicted one at the same time.”

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  1. Gail says:

    This show could have been great if it focused on actually using Rami to find hackers instead of all the BS it seems to be now.

    • Your IQ is showing says:

      You should check out a network called CBS. That’s C. Then B. Then the last letter is S. CBS. They have many programs that I believe you would enjoy.

  2. alan479 says:

    Fantastic series. I hope it will open up a flood of similar like minded productions. Hacking is just a part of this series’ identity. The bigger picture it presents is that of the individual taking action against the legal criminals who have gained global power,prestige and acceptance. The series shows that no one has to just sit back and take it and have their world completely ruled by the “big guys.” It demonstrates how radical violent reactionaries like Mr Robot are intelligently insane and out of control and can do much more harm than good. It’s about the new and increasing cutting edge alternative movement basically labelled by the “big boys” media as ‘conspiracy nuts.” The criminals are not only small individuals but big business and big government and the little man can find ways to take them on.

  3. carver green says:

    The show started well, but lost me with the Cosby reference. If the standards by which Cosby’s been found guilty in social media differ, in any way, from those employed during the Salem Witchcraft Trials, someone needs to point the difference out to me. I saw a show that started out about a bright kid turn into a show about a moron and switched it off. 42% of us, according to MSNBC’s most recent poll, require EVIDENCE before we’ll call Bill Cosby guilty. If the powers that be on TV would remove their heads from their rectums, they might grasp that we’re an audience that matters. In the meantime I’m finding better things to watch than Mr. Robot.

  4. Alex loves good TV says:

    Mr Robot,

    Must see, simply fantastic,clever, intriguing, can’t wait to see the next show.

  5. Arty Kraft says:

    USA is proving to be a creative core for stunningly original, exceedingly well produced shows. “Suits” has been magnificent in illustrating the predatory machinations of legal and corporate maneuvers; it’s a pity the show hasn’t received higher acclaim. The writing is zippy yet, with few exceptions, plausible and the acting is superb. Though the cutthroat leads frequently violate the spirit of the law, as well as the letter, they are drawn so well that they irresistibly engender an unfair degree of sympathy.

    “Mr. Robot” was breathtakingly unique in the first episode, capturing the essence of jaded, outsider perspectives without resorting to cliches and annoying complications. The inner monologue of the lead, accentuated by a poignant series of montage references, is brilliant, synchronizing writing, editing, and directing in accessible, profound ways. Its sensibilities are conceptually related to the experimentation of films like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Easy Rider.” And the primal subversiveness is just too delicious for words.

  6. notahacker says:

    Yeah, well, no good hacker would recommend bloat like KDE. XFCE…or no window manager at all.

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