The First One is Free: Reviewing TV Pilots (Mr. Robot)

Because they pick and choose information to fit their conclusions, conspiracy theorists can never be wrong. Making this the premise of a show isn’t anything new, but fully committing to it is rare. However, there is money to be made in catering to pseudo-libertarian hackivist culture. Watching the pilot of Mr. Robot was as exhausting as it was irksome. Mr. Robot is not forgettable sanguine, mildly inoffensive, or fetishistic, and for network television, this makes it stand out.


Mr. Robot
Pilot episode, 
“The guys that play God without permission.” 

Some of the best television being made right now is not just character driven, it is character obsessed. What makes this show is the superb portrayal of its lead Elliot Alderson by Rami Malek. Ridiculous privilege characterizes Elliot, a fundamental inability to conceive of a world that is not revolving around him or shouldn’t bend to his will. Implied in every little speech of Elliot’s every act of vigilante justice is the belief that he should be the one to grant or deny permission. 

Surrounding Elliot are his therapist (a woman he can barely stomach yet is intensely possessive of), his sassy drug dealer and quasi-paramour (she hints at fulfilling the Marla Singer role), and his longtime friend and coworker Angela Moss. Each of Elliot’s encounters with these women is telling. When we first meet Angela she appears as a sort of Brittany Spears schoolgirl of the office and it’s laughable. But realizing the entire narrative is filtered through Elliot’s POV, it makes sense that this would be his vision of unrequited love–sophomoric. When in therapy, Elliot’s internal life is openly contemptuous of his therapist believing he is at once immune and in total control as he dissects her private life by violating her privacy at will. Yet at nearly every turn it’s made clear that the therapist understands Elliot’s mental state better than he does. All of this comes into stark contrast when we see Elliot alone and literally crushed by depression. He self-medicates by abusing drugs and in the process develops his sole physical relationship (Elliot winces whenever he is even casually touched by others) with his drug dealer.


Hypocrisy infuses every word from Elliot’s mouth (and the painfully annoying voice-over narration) while permeating every one of his actions. His arrogance in believing himself some how exempt from his criticisms of others combined with his utter lack of self-knowledge makes the character insufferable. This is a hero filtered through Gamer Gate.

What’s truly infuriating about this character is many and most of his criticisms aren’t baseless. But that’s what makes Elliot’s paranoid delusions so enticing. Just like Tyler Durden of Fight Club, his righteous cultural indignation is just a mask for infantile tantrums and a violent refusal to confront his own depression. Elliot never once asks himself if it is okay to spy on those around him, to violate them. He does it because he can, perfect indolent hubris.

I’m not on-board with this show being considered one of the best of the summer. It’s part of a larger move, I feel, in television to get away from depictions of programmers as weak-willed nerds and towards images usually reserved for cliche leading men. While I’m glad to see a move away from one cliche, I’m saddened by the move towards another. It all smacks of hyper-masculinity as a coping mechanism.

A cyberthriller is still a thriller, a pulp genre meant to be consumed quick and in seemingly unending quantities. So trying to convince me that Mr. Robot is good because of the shock of the new doesn’t fly. When Christian Slater makes his character fully present, the eponymous Mr. Robot, the story enters the world of the common procedural. When this happens, the show is diminished.

Yet this is a well done show, the way the first season of Homeland was well done. I want to see this character go through his transformation, I want to see just how he’ll turn out. For a pilot, that is a home run.

Given that the USA Network typically has a difficult time presenting anything that isn’t…quaint…this is a significant stylistic departure. My concern is that the psychological distortion or torture, if you will, that Elliot is enduring is going to get swept under the rug or become a sad little subplot.

Elliot has zero redeeming qualities. If Mr. Robot is going to grow, improve, or even become a genuinely good show, then Elliot has to regain (or gain?) his mental health. Only then will Mr. Robot become anything more than a hackivist shill meant to get us talking around the water-cooler superficially gossiping about topics we have no real understanding of or investment in.

I can’t bring myself to recommend it, although I see it’s appeal. Other viewers love Mr. Robot, however. Over 2.5 million people watched this pilot, and based on that, USA has already committed to a second season. This could become a flagship show for the network. 

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