Miss Misery on hacking Mr Robot and the Missing Sense of Fun

He's both the sharpest tool AND two spanners short

Stob Are you lolling dolefully? Then I'll continue. The TV show Mr. Robot deals with the life and adventures of Elliot Alderson, a twenty-something New York devop and cyber-vigilante. He and his circle of chums, seeking to inflict revenge on a mega-corporation for a hushed-up industrial accident, stumble towards bringing e-civilisation to a sticky end.

(When this eventually happens, by the way, remember I did warn you to shell out an extra 50 pee for the proper paperbacks. How foolish you will look when your much-vaunted e-library is reduced to a lump of inert plastic suitable only for incineration. Kindling, in fact.)

In some ways, Mr Alderson is yet another TV reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes. He shares the Baker Street propensity for delivering devastating character summaries, albeit from hacked rather than deduced observation: "I can say nothing about you, except that you changed your name six years ago, you have a chain of 17 internet coffee shops with eight more coming next quarter, and you use them as cover for your vast, illegal porn site."

Also like Holmes, Mr A has: poor social skills, isolationist habits, a tendency to fall into "the dumps" (that's Conan Doyle's term rather than Mr A's psychiatrist's) and, in an attempt to compensate for this last characteristic, a class-A drug habit. But he lacks a Watson figure to act as confidant and interpreter. He must speak for himself.

This he does at length. Alderson voices over great chunks of exposition in a depressed baritone. Think Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android out of Hitchhiker's Guide, but with techie arrogance substituted for comedy: "Hacking her was simple. Her password: Dylan_2791. Favourite artist and the year in which she was born, backwards." (The mark here is his aforementioned psychiatrist, by the way. Mr A hacks everyone he meets as a matter of course.)

Mr A's acquaintances are not much of a tonic. Angela, a girly-girl who supplies Mr A's principal non-love interest, tends to wear an expression like a slapped wet Wednesday in Wolverhampton. She is addicted to ghastly self affirmation recordings like this. Whereas Mr A's collaborator Darlene-the-teen – eventually revealed to be his sister, that's a spoilerette so feel free to go back and forget it if you didn't want to know – is made of sterner stuff: she has petabytes of attitude, hacking skills of her own, mascara and kohl applied panda style and a voice impressively locked in a gravelly crawler gear.

Anyway. Mr Alderson's day job is as an outsourced security wallah for E Corp (logo: a rotated capital E, like Enron's... and Dell's) which he thinks of as "Evil Corp". Evil Corp's IT structure is constantly subject to attacks, the most recent of which – a DDoS assault – can only be defeated with Mr A's formidable IT skills. However, since Mr A is also part of the team doing the hacking (led, perhaps, by the mysterious, titular character), there is here a conflict of interest so massive it might almost trouble the conscience of a recently retired British government minister.

Hollow-eyed and hoodie-hooded

Is Mr A an avenging angel? A victim of society? Having an off-week? As he stalks around some crummier bits of New York, hollow-eyed and hoodie-hooded like a manic monk, it becomes clear that he is as mentally stable as a carton of pond-based amphibians. He is prone to wild hallucinations and/or delusions. What he witnesses is sometimes subsequently established to be untrue. He is a ++unreliable narrator.

(With so much of the action seen through Mr A's eyes, one struggles to invest in the plot. What's to prevent the makers running out of money halfway through next season and terminating the whole thing with Mr A awakening to, as it were, Bobby Ewing pinging away his shoulder blackheads in the shower? How would we get our viewing hours back then, huh?) Other things you should know:

  • A Scandinavian couple – an Evil Corp executive and missus – demonstrate the programme's sophistication a) by conversing in subtitled dialogue (he speaks Swedish, she Danish – thanks for that detail Mr. Robot Wiki) and also b) by indulging in bizarre sexual practices that put Fifty Shades' larks in, um, the shade. These frolics – I suppose one might more idiomatically call them "bn0kings" – fail to lighten the atmosphere. I dare say that wasn't the idea.
  • The miasma of gloom extends to the colour palette used in filming. The show is lit like The X-Files, with exteriors in grey, office scenes in frigid blue, and the New York subway – on which we must frequently travel and endure Mr A's Eeyore-like monologue – comes out in that sort of pus-yellow cast that one used to get in the 1970s when snapping party pix on an Instamatic.
  • From time to time there are scenes of extreme and abrupt gore, in the manner of Breaking Bad. If you can't be doing with icky, consider your card marked.
  • An important, sinister, super-baddy character is transgender. This has been represented as a breakthrough in the TV portrayal of transgenderism. In much the same way that Blofeld in From Russia with Love was a breakthrough in filmic portrayal of white Persian cat ownership, I suppose.
  • To my ignorant Windows programmer eyes, the Unixish technical dope looks on the button.
  • The episodes are l33tishly titled with their BitTorrent filenames, for example season 1 episode 4 "Exploits" is called eps1.4_3xpl0its.wmv. The presumably unintended subliminal message: if you paid money to watch this, then more fool you.

Bottom line

Mr. Robot is cleverly plotted, thoughtfully and sensitively acted by a talented cast – Rami Malek is particularly convincing in the lead role of Elliot Alderson. It is cleverly staged, scarily and intelligently portraying a plausible apocalypse where a malware-riddled IT superstructure has disastrously collapsed. The writing goes deeper than mere superficial sci-fi: it has much to say about the nature of identity. From which palaver you will have deduced I didn't like it. The problem with Mr. Robot is it's too clever by half. Lacking any character one can empathise with, the programme itself becomes boring. It became harder to watch as each episode passed.

Halfway through viewing Season 2, I discovered that Channel 4 had put up the whole of Hill Street Blues on its website, free for the taking. And I'm afraid, on making this discovery, I did a Bad Thing. I bailed on Mr. Robot, and so had a nice time instead of a nasty time. So let's be careful out there.

Stob paid for and watched (most of) seasons 1 and 2 of Mr. Robot on Amazon Video. Both extant seasons are currently bundled with Amazon Prime, with a third planned for release in October. ®

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