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Television

Review: Conspiracy thriller ‘Mr. Robot’ is back, and it looks and feels like nothing else on TV

Christian Slater and Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot”
Christian Slater and Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot,” which returns for a second season Wednesday on USA.
(Christopher Saunders/USA Network)

“Mr. Robot” begins a second season on USA on Wednesday night with a two-part opener broadcast back to back. A conspiracy thriller set in the present day – it’s still 2015 on the series’ clock – it’s science fiction in the sense that it involves technology, but not in the quasi-supernatural manner of flying saucers, Godzillas, time travel or synthetic human or mutant superheroes and such. Still, it shares with much sci-fi a sense of the ordinary world pushed a click toward the uncanny.

Into every generation a confused and disaffected hero is born. In “Mr. Robot” it’s Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cyberwhiz who was recruited – Season 1 spoilers ahead – to the underground hacking collective fsociety by a person (Christian Slater) who turned out to be his father, who turned out to be dead, a figment of his imagination projected wholly into his world, though invisible to everyone else – a “Sixth Sense” move, dramatically.

READ MORE: Why ‘Mr. Robot’ season premiere hit online three days early, then got pulled back »

Of course, imaginary characters have as much substance in fiction as “actual” ones, so things do get muddled, and I would not be surprised to learn that I have got things in this show upside-down or backward. It’s that kind of series; much of the pleasure for a viewer is in not quite having a handle on things. And after the revelations of the first season, one of the gifts of the second – which creator Sam Esmail is directing entirely himself – is that it brings new characters and situations whose purposes are, for the moment, veiled. (A new “Talking Dead"-style postgame show, “Hacking Robot,” will sift its mysteries weekly.)

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The action picks up a month after the close of the first season, with the success of the fsociety hack against the financial giant (read: secret world government) E Corp -- or, as Elliot hears it, “Evil Corp” – which canceled the world’s debt. (Regard it as a metaphor.)

As heroes go, Malek, whose performance defines the series, is remarkably interior and isolated. As the new season begins he is actually trying to do nothing much -- living with his mother (“the strictest person I know”) and avoiding tech. “Today started just like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that and every day for the last month,” he writes in a journal, “a loop, my perfectly constructed loop.”

A ghost in a hoodie, he goes to a church group “to keep socializing myself,” hangs out with old friend Leon (Joey Badass), who has just gotten into “Seinfeld” (“I tell you, the human condition is a straight-up tragedy,” says Leon), watches playground basketball (for “the invisible code of chaos hiding behind the menacing face of order”). Other characters get on with their own story strands, which intersect Elliot’s but have their own integrity. Craig Robinson, from “The Office,” happily arrives as a new one, with a dog and an unclear agenda.

The show, which has already won a Peabody Award among a passel of other official recognitions, makes for unusual and exciting television – I welcome it back. But it is striking more for its form than its contents, which are familiar, including its unreliable narrator with an invisible frenemy and the decadent corporate Goliath that pulls the levers that drive the wheels that turn the pulleys that work the strings that make the world go round, to the “V for Vendetta” masking of its anarchist rebels. (People who write and direct television are by definition not anarchists, and the series does not wholly trust its heroes.) Its philosophical digressions (“Maybe truth doesn’t exist, maybe what we think is all we got,” says Robinson’s character) are the stuff of a hundred thousand dorm nights.

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But it looks and feels like nothing else on TV. Many series are “stylish,” often to their detriment, but there is something particularly intentional and impudent and even exhilarating about the formal choices here – one recurring visual strategy is to have a character situated at the edge of the screen look away from the center toward the edge, crowding the action to the side, leaving most of the screen blurry and dividing your attention in a novel way. Music cues comes and go with a cheeky abruptness that seems lifted from Jean-Luc Godard – if you’re going to steal, steal smart.

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