Jul 8, 2016

[TV] Mr. Robot: Season 1

Most popular media tends to depict hacking as ridiculous montages of various actors mashing keyboards indiscriminately. And so the hacker life seems somewhat glamorous if you only look at movies since it doesn't seem to take much to become a hacker beyond owning a laptop and a hoodie.

Mr. Robot is an interesting effort to somehow depict hacking in a more realistic manner and also tap into modern hacktivist culture, to some extent. Thus gone are all the green screen computers and close-ups of lightning fast random keyboard tapping and instead we have more well thought out hacks that don't just involve computers.

The series seems to borrow a lot of aesthetics from the Fight Club movie in terms of overall tone. Instead of having an insecure jaded office worker as a narrator, instead we have a brilliant antisocial genius who deals with other people by hacking their information in order to learn more about them.

Synopsis: Mr. Robot is a drama thriller series created by Sam Esmail and airs on USA Network. The first season won numerous awards including the Golden Globe awards for Best Television Series - Drama and Best Supporting Actor - Series, Miniseries or Television Film.

The show is centered around Elliot Anderson (Rami Malek), who works as a security engineer at a company called Allsafe Cybersecurity by day but outside work he's a vigilante hacker. Thus he likes t use his hacking skills to expose kiddie porn rings cheating husbands.  He resorts to taking morphine to help cope with his social anxiety order and bouts of clinical depression and is prone to hallucinations. Things start to change when he is recruited by a man known only as Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to become in a hacktivist group known as fsociety. They're anarchists trying to destroy the debt records of one of the biggest companies in the world in order to free more people of debt but also destabilize our capitalist society.

The series begins by introducing Elliot's quirky way of interacting with others. In Microserfs the narrator categorized people by their Jeopardy! categories. In this series Elliot describes people based on what information he found by hacking them. And it's not even meant in a malicious manner. It's almost automatic - he gets to know people by digging into their digital histories. And this is how he ends up finding things to address as a vigilante of sorts.

One of the key mechanisms of Elliot's world is the fact that we follow the story based on his perspective and it is immediately established that he is aware that he tends to hallucinate. Thus the entire narrative becomes questionable as just about anything could be fake or imagined. The fact that every mention of E Corp as Evil Corp instead is a small reminder of this all throughout the show. And the way the writers made use of this fact made for some interesting revelations later in this first season.

It was nice to see Christian Slater in an acting role that really works for him. Plus with all the flashbacks to older times, seeing Christian Slater there totally makes sense. He's a bit of a rambler in terms of his acting style, but else would we expect from our so-called Mr. Robot character, right? No wonder he won awards.

I'm glad that  more American shows are exploring the potential of shorter narrative arcs. While the full US TV season is still over 20 episodes, this show only lasted 10 with a few others following suit with 10-13 episode arcs that are similar to a longer British drama. The shorter timeframe to work with tends to lead to tighter writing, in my opinion and thus a lot of shows come out stronger for it. If only more shows would follow this pattern, although I assume there will be cost implications since it would mean more shows needing to be produced.

Mr. Robot is a clever show that is an interesting look into how hacking really works and how it leverages social engineering more than actual technology to break into other people's accounts and such. It's novel but not necessarily entirely new, but the show had some great twists and turns here and there. Thus the first season gets a good 4 clever intrusions out of a possible 5.


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