If casting and character are half the battle, “Mr. Robot” is more than halfway home. Showcasing Rami Malek in a breakout performance as a highly unorthodox protagonist — a socially clumsy, almost feral hacker — the series rivals “Rectify” as Program With the Most Tortured Lead Character. As written by Sam Esmail, this has the jittery feel of a British thriller, and an absurdist sense of entrenched interests vs. a weird insurgency: a conceit that vaguely recalls Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” While commercial prospects appear hazy, it’s hard to remember the last time USA put on anything more intriguing.
Malek’s Elliot is a cyber-security specialist by day, laboring away for a cubicle-filled corporation. By night, though, he’s an unrepentant hacker — delving into the personal lives of those who enter his orbit — as well as a drug user and someone so painfully awkward that he freely admits, “I don’t know how to talk to people.”
Diving into the plot, Elliot is introduced on the subway, his frantic narration imparting that he has stumbled onto “a conspiracy bigger than all of us,” involving masters of the universe who will essentially stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. If that sounds more than a little paranoid — and much of “Mr. Robot” does — Elliot is assured this is all too real by a renegade hacker (Christian Slater, marking TV’s best use of him in some time), who goes by the name Mr. Robot, and wants to recruit him to infiltrate and undermine the shadowy corporation Elliot has been hired to protect.
Narration is an overused device, but as rattled off by Malek (whose credits include “The Pacific”), it has a haunting, unsettling quality (think “Taxi Driver”), serving up a running monologue of his suspicions and distrust of just about everything except his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), who happens to work with him. He’s also somewhat fond of his therapist (Gloria Reuben), though as with most of his interactions, his true thoughts are confined to the debate raging inside his head.
It’s in his dealings with Slater’s character, who is determined to strike a blow against the ruling elite, that Elliot is forced to grapple with his own belief system, given his general lack of a filter and his vigilante-by-hack streak. Basically, Elliot is told the revolution is happening; it’s just a question now of choosing sides.
To his credit, Esmail leaves the audience off-balance regarding who’s worse: the hackers or the corporate overseers. Nor does it require a huge leap to find additional resonance in the notion of the cyber-attackers targeting a corporation — however Bond-villain-like it might appear — after Sony’s recent experience.
Walking around with wild, darting eyes, and wearing a hoodie, Malek doesn’t look like the kind of guy you’d necessarily want to sit next to in a subway car. That said, it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him, and through a second hour, the course of the series remains as jagged and unrefined as his narration, offering little sense of where this might lead.
That’s often a bracing experience for critics, but not necessarily a ticket to Nielsen nirvana. Then again, with a guy like Elliot around, how hard would it be to just hack into a few servers and turn those hash marks into “The Walking Dead” numbers?
Considering that USA dramas had begun to exhibit a certain assembly-line quality, whatever its fate, “Mr. Robot” feels like a daring risk — one that’s more calibrated to the confines of pay cable, and animated by a welcome spark of inspiration.