Review

Trouble erupts as men and machines spar in 'Mr. Robot' and 'Humans'

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

Man rails against machine in two new and very promising techno-paranoia tales.

USA's "Mr. Robot," which premieres Wednesday, examines the fear of digital domination: Can evil corporations be broken by the same systems that grant them world domination? Meanwhile, AMC's "Humans," which premieres Sunday, goes straight-up robots and offers a surprisingly nuanced look at the old worry that artificial intelligence will eventually outstrip human consciousness.

Created by Sam Esmail and shot in muted tones that admirably balance decay, dulled-sense surrender and potential menace, "Mr. Robot" is the more ambitious of the two, if only because it takes on a genre with a very high failure rate: the digital conspiracy thriller.

The first hour is overly obsessive-compulsive in plot points — code strings and routers as the new McGuffins — but the adolescent rage of its protagonist gives it emotional life.

Nondescript techie for a cyber-security firm by day and vigilante hacker by night, Elliot (Rami Malek) is a blank-faced, socially challenged über-millennial.

When he's not bringing down child pornographers and other social scum, Elliot routinely invades the privacy of those he loves under the guise of protecting them. "Those he loves" being Angela (Portia Doubleday), friend/co-worker/object of devotion, and Krista (Gloria Reuben), Elliot's therapist who apparently has very bad taste in men.

Elliot is seeing a therapist because he has suffered hallucinations in the past. They may still be ongoing. Are the men in suits who appear to be following him the result of his hacking adventures? And who is that homeless guy who looks suspiciously like Christian Slater?

Well, it is Christian Slater, playing the title role. Mr Robot is a fellow computer genius who says he wants to take down the 1% who control the world.

Although tricked out with the high-functioning autism so popular with television writers these days, Elliot is more complex than the typical hero-on-the-spectrum. He narrates the series, and clearly we are supposed to sympathize — he is sad, his dad is dead, he cries alone — but his creepiness is also undeniable, played up both by his actions and by Malek's effectively robotic performance. Discovering Elliot's true nature and intentions, one hopes, will be as central to the adventure as the quest to take down the Evil Corporation.

Where "Mr. Robot" is set in a New York City that hasn't seemed so dead and grimy since the Ed Koch administration, "Humans" occupies a high-def bright-and-shiny world oblivious to the problems posed by a rising population of synthetic humans.

Which we know are going to be problematic from the very first, and highly effective, opening scene.

So when Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), who is being run ragged while his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is out of town, buys the family a Synth, there's going to be trouble. Especially since the Synth he gets is Anita (Gemma Chan).

Anita is, in fact, one of a small group of Synths that have evolved beyond their programming. Led by Leo (Colin Morgan), they have made at least one attempt to escape servitude and elude police, black marketeers and especially professor Edwin Hobb (Danny Webb), who considers them akin to the God particle.

This main narrative of "Humans," which is based on a Swedish series and written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, is solid if somewhat familiar; the truth and beauty of the series lies in the various B plots. Those story threads include the suspicions of Laura and her older daughter, Mattie (Lucy Carless), who views Synths as agents of her obsolescence, and the heartbreaking relationship between Dr. George Millican (William Hurt) and his longtime Synth Odi (Will Tudor).

A widower in failing health, Millican is required to have a care-taking Synth. But Odi, with his glitching memory, is considered too outdated and needs to be replaced. Millican, an early Synth designer, considers Odi more a surrogate son than caregiver.

Hurt's performance is the single best thing about "Humans," which, considering the quality of the series, is saying something.

In a single scene, he evokes the rage, confusion, hope and momentary surrender that all big change, including age, inevitably inspires. Indeed, he and Tudor are so good that it's difficult not to wish theirs was the showcase story line.

Watching the odd, aging couple falter together, attempting to shore each other up, provides the show's most profound argument regarding the slender gap between organic and artificial intelligence.

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'Mr. Robot'

Where: USA

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

'Humans'

Where: AMC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)

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