I don’t watch a whole lot of TV. In fact, I don’t even have cable. The only shows I end up watching, therefore, are those I’m introduced to or I read about. Mr. Robot is the latest such show; I read David Auerbach’s piece on it and was intrigued. In Auerbach’s words:
Real misfits—disturbing, unappealing, unlovable misfits—make for poor Hollywood protagonists. It takes some faith to inject a genuinely alienating hero into a film or TV show. But ever since the broader world of tech has gained a whiff of cool over the past decade or so, Hollywood’s portrayals of hackers, programmers, and other screen-strapped geeks have tended to sugarcoat the frequently unvarnished and even unappealing aspects of a culture that prides itself on not caring about the mainstream. I’m not bemoaning the lack of shy nerds with hearts of gold here, but of awkward and even abrasive characters who talk too loudly, can’t follow conversational cues, transgress boundaries obliviously, and harbor conspiracy theories or other unappealing ideas—like a lot of actual hackers out there. We forget that people detest savant types for reasons beyond their smarts, and a lack of social graces is one of them.
Elliot, the protagonist of the new USA Network drama Mr. Robot, comes far closer to this type than an American television show has dared for a while. (Elliot isn’t the titular Mr. Robot—that’s Christian Slater.) As played by Rami Malek, Elliot doesn’t have the charisma of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock or the anti-charisma of Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House. Unlike Tony Shalhoub’s Adrian Monk, he’s not a collection of quivering nerves and endearing eccentricities. These characters—all nerds of one sort or another—are fundamentally capable of functioning in society, and Elliot really isn’t. He and the world just don’t hook up in the right way. Taking copious drugs in order to function, he carries a vacant and flattened affect, neither making eye contact with anyone nor turning away when they look at him. With his emaciated face and sunken eyes, Malek gives an impression of emptiness, paranoia, and above all disconnection.
This is probably a polarizing description: some people will be immediately interested while others will probably question why anyone would want to watch it. It was very much the former for me, possibly because Auerbach’s description of Elliot hits a bit close to home. I watched the first episode and was instantly hooked. The show immediately draws you into its world: a sort of dystopian present, a mirror image of our own reality, but viewed through the eyes of a brilliant, cynical, emotionally troubled young man who struggles not only with an unfeeling universe but also with drug addiction and mental illness.
Atypically for movies and TV, Elliot’s mental illness is depicted respectfully and at least somewhat accurately, too. He’s not an over-the-top Hollywood psycho, but merely a vulnerable person suffering from paranoia and delusions. And being a software developer, I also really appreciated that the show nails the technology. It’s not completely realistic, but that’s to be expected; the reality of programming and hacking is that they’re slow, analytical processes, often consisting of long stretches of thought punctuated by short bursts of activity. In other words, they’re boring to watch, and sometimes to undertake, too. Mr. Robot strips that away, but it keeps the interesting aspects intact without insulting the audience’s intelligence with impossible technology, meaningless invented jargon, or awful 3D GUIs.