Thursday, November 17, 2016

Mr. Robot (USA)

I've heard good things over the last year or so about USA's Mr. Robot, and thanks to a combination of Amazon Prime Video and Playstation Vue I have easy access to all the episodes of the two seasons released at this point.
Part of what attracted me to this show is the hacker theme, which seems well-executed to me. Several of the characters, including the protagonist Elliot, are heavily into hacker culture. They spend a lot of time gathering information on people via social media, going after corporate networks, and occasionally even helping to catch criminals. Unlike a lot of popular media, this show tries to keep their technical segments realistic, or at least within shouting distance of realism. I particularly like how almost all their activities involve a human (aka "social engineering"), which is majorly under-represented in most "hacker" storylines. Why break in through technology barriers when you can get someone to let you in?

In the first few episodes, Mr. Robot is almost entirely about the characters using their hacking skills to set up a major breach against "E Corp" (always referred to as "Evil Corp"). The idea is to wipe out all of the corporate data, thus freeing people from their debts. My gut reaction on hearing that was "oh, the writers saw Fight Club" and that parallel certainly is accurate, even more so once you get around the end of the first season.

It's not long before the major conflict shifts from the external hack-the-evil-corporation to Elliot's internal struggles. He's an addict, with lots of social anxiety and some major personality issues. His inability to remain in control and recognize reality versus fantasy causes some fairly major problems for himself and his friends. His mental issues take up a lot of the show, especially in the second season. A good portion of the time, the viewer isn't sure if what we see is reality or not. Frankly, I felt like about half of the "Elliot's struggles" scenes could have been cut out and the viewer would still have gotten the idea.

There's a significant anti-establishment theme to Mr. Robot, more than just what you get with the "a bunch of hackers" main character group. No opportunity is missed to paint government and big corporations as thoroughly evil in the first season. This is mitigated a bit in the second season when we see things from the viewpoint of an FBI agent, but the overall tone is clear. I'm fairly sympathetic to those ideas; nonetheless, it seems overly preachy to me. The show is heavy on "establishment bad" and light on how average people are hurt when that establishment crumbles. That starts to change a bit toward the end of the second season; it'll be interesting to see how it continues to develop in the third.

Unfortunately, Mr. Robot also adds in a hefty dose of psychopathy in the form of Tyrell and Joanna Wellick. He's an "Evil Corp" executive that beats up on bums, sleeps with other executives' assistants to steal information, and eventually commits murder. She's a master manipulator of her husband and just about everyone else, and a masochist. I felt that pretty much all the nasty stuff they do was completely unnecessary, useful only as shock value. Their paths do cross with that of Elliot and friends, so it's not like they're useless characters, but I think the plot points could have been handled without all the "50 Shades of Grey" moments.

I like the concept behind Mr. Robot, and enjoyed the mystery feel while trying to figure out the various inter-personal intrigues and what's going on in Elliot's head. I just wish it was a bit more focused, eliminating some of the over-the-top psychopath moments and repetition of similar scenes.

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