The Envelope: As ‘Mr. Robot’ warily eyes corporate power, it becomes a powerhouse of its own
When Rami Malek, star of USA Network’s “Mr. Robot,” received a picture on his cellphone recently, he couldn’t believe his eyes: In it, his face was plastered across a London double-decker bus in an ad promoting the show, and kids were standing around it, pointing and wearing dark hoodies like his character, Elliot Alderson.
“If you’d told me that would be the case a year ago, I would have laughed,” says Malek. “This show reaches people on a global scale, people who feel disenfranchised and trapped in a system with the deck stacked against them.”
So it does. “Mr. Robot” is one of the TV season’s more surprising success stories: An edgy, auteur-driven (thanks to creator Sam Esmail) dark tale about an angry hacker with mental issues who, along with a cadre of peers, succeeds in taking down the world’s financial system doesn’t get a series order every day. The fact that it’s being told on USA Network — not a traditional hotbed of edgy, auteur-driven dark tales — adds further intrigue.
“It’s part of our evolution — complex, serialized, edgier stories,” says USA President Chris McCumber. “We had to find scripts that had millennial appeal, and we’ve clearly hit that mark.”
The “Robot” story — which has been likened to “Fight Club” and “The Matrix” — has performed well in the U.S. and also found traction overseas (it’s been sold in 130 territories abroad). Not bad for a first-season newcomer without major name recognition (though Christian Slater has a supporting role as the show’s titular character) or extensive gore/language/nudity to generate buzz. But does it have enough recognition and respect to command attention during Golden Globes season?
A scratch of the show’s surface says that it should.
Esmail comes to TV as an outsider — he started writing “Robot” as a movie and realized he had to rethink things once the script was still in setup mode after 90 pages. Once it became a series, though, Esmail did not want it to be the same “rinse, repeat” he was used to seeing. He aimed higher: He wanted to be like “Breaking Bad.” “That show was a feature [movie],” he says. “Just one that was 63 hours long.”
Slater says, “I got a script that said ‘Mr. Robot’ and I was, like, wait, there are no robots in it. I was relieved and surprised. I was so happy that everything wasn’t revealed at the beginning.”
“Robot’s” feature film appeal also translates to its look — from a moody, earthy color palette to unusual camera angles that telegraph Elliot’s skewed perception and off-kilter mental state. Esmail clearly does not love the medium shot.
But the content may be what’s grabbing millennials and international viewers: Esmail, the son of Egyptian-born parents, was attracted to hacker culture as a kid; later his imagination was sparked by the Occupy movement’s civil disobedience and the Arab Spring. After talking to his Egyptian cousins who were part of that movement, Esmail says: “To see them channel their anger in a positive way was the last piece to Elliot’s psychology.”
Esmail also got lucky with casting — Malek is a charismatic and nontraditional star who has an Egyptian background — and when USA decided to think outside the box in promoting his show. “Robot” picked up the Audience Award at South by Southwest prior to its airing, the pilot premiered on nonlinear platforms, and the series got a renewal before any non-streaming audiences saw it.
Perhaps also interesting is that the show — which explores the idea that the corporate-driven political/financial system needs crashing — airs on a channel owned by one of the world’s bigger corporations.
“The irony is not lost on me,” says Esmail. “We all went through that in our younger years, where we have this youthful revolutionary spirit in us — and I think Comcast understands that. They know the show is about this guy’s journey and not this whole anti-corporate polemic.”
Walking that fine line, however, seems to only increase the audience appeal here and abroad. “At its core, the show questions whether society’s use of technology is for good or evil,” says executive producer Chad Hamilton. “Every culture around the globe can relate to this. The collapse of the financial sector in the finale sets up a thread that will go far beyond U.S. borders.”
“There are absolutely international themes,” says Esmail, who can picture the show’s endpoint after four or five seasons. “The idea of wanting to change the world, wanting to revolutionize your society, that’s not just something that’s happening in America. Loneliness has increased, and that’s an impact of technology. That’s a global thing and doesn’t just pertain to America. Who can’t relate to that?”
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