SXSW’s Episodic TV lineup this year featured some pretty notable heavy-hitters, including the Billy Crystal-starring FX comedy "The Comedians" and TBS’ "Angie Tribeca," created by Steve and Nancy Carell. But the Oscar host and Oscar nominee didn’t walk away with the top prize available to the Episodic programming. Instead, it was the most obscure offering on the menu that won audiences’ hearts — literally.
Audience award winner "Mr. Robot" — which USA described in the program notes as a "psychological thriller" — featured Christian Slater in a supporting role but was otherwise an unknown quantity going into the fest. And it still proved to be one of the fest’s most surprising and intriguing series. It’s a testament to the blend of cinematic execution that’s invaded episodic narratives in recent years, in combination with the sort of character-centered storytelling that defines the most engaging storytelling. Most importantly, it inspires memories of the 1995 film "Hackers," in the best possible way.
The definition of insular and initimate, "Mr. Robot" is told strictly from the point of view of Elliot (Rami Malek, who first broke out in the SXSW 2013 film "Short Term 12"), a brilliant computer expert with a fondness for hoodies, recreational heroin use and using his internet skills for vigilante justice. Facing the world with an awkward, Zuckerberg-esque affect that will probably have a lot of people referencing the spectrum, Elliot hates the world in front of him and wants to change it, one asshole at a time. But when he meets the leader of "fsociety" (Slater) — a hacker even more anarchic and skilled than him, who’s interested in truly tearing down the whole system — that point of view is put to the test.
Malek, given the task of leading the series, proves more than capable of the challenge; by definition, Elliot features no shortage of unsympathetic attributes, but there’s something in his eyes that reveals a certain vulnerability, even in his darkest moments. Perhaps what makes the character work is his fondness for the people in his life, from co-worker and childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday) to therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben). Or perhaps it’s the fact that you can’t help but agree with him about the massive problems underlying today’s modern world.
The first episode sets Elliot up as a potential force for good… or a potential source of evil. But while he’s torn between both sides, the show leaves the question of which side is the true source of evil; partly because it’s not so much good versus evil as it is order versus chaos, and "Mr. Robot" seems genuinely interested in debating whether there’s a difference between the two dictomies.
That complexity is couched in clean, visually striking execution that ably manages the challenge of making people sitting in front of computers doing computer stuff dynamic and engaging. So much media about computer hacking get bogged down in wildly inaccurate drama, but even folks at the tech blog The Verge thought the show got the details right. That was very important to creator Sam Esmail: "Hacking is less about the code and more about finding the vulnerabilities. It’s more like social engineering," he said to Indiewire right before the show’s SXSW premiere. "I wanted to stay as grounded as possible."
While the writing leans a little hard on Elliot’s inner monologue/voice-over — a choice that could become claustrophobic over the course of multiple episodes — at least in the first episode it does keep the show feeling intimate and personal to the character. Slater might be the big name on the poster, but it’s fully and completely Malek’s show.
According to Esmail, "Mr. Robot" began life as a feature, then, as he wrote, its future as a TV show became apparent. "It was sort of an accident," he said. "I started writing it as a feature, and then I got to like page 89, and I was maybe a third of the way through, and I was like, ‘Maybe this should be a TV show.’ So I chopped off 20 pages and turned it into a pilot."
Esmail has a clear picture in his head for the show’s structure: 10 episodes a season, maybe four or five seasons. Because it was originally a feature, he knows how it ends.
While its origins don’t necessarily make it better or worse than what’s currently happening on television, the fact that Esmail initially saw it as a movie might explain why it feels so completely different; and not just from USA’s iconic "Blue Sky" series, but television in general.
Even a show like CBS’s "Person of Interest," which has some similar DNA, adheres at some level to a case-of-the-week procedural structure. Meanwhile, the end of "Mr. Robot" catapults the story into a whole spectrum. It’s the sort of bold move that makes for unpredictable television — which can often be the best kind.
Mr. Robot premieres on USA this June.