July 2, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “Mr. Robot”


MR. ROBOT – Wednesday 10PM on USA

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at SHOWBUZZDAILY, we look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on MR. ROBOT:  Elliot (Rami Malek) is a master hacker with an assortment of antisocial and other disturbing quirks, including paranoia, depression, and perhaps schizophrenia, who self-medicates (taking both morphine and a withdrawal drug) and barely manages a friendship with Angela (Portia Doubleday).  He works for a cybersecurity firm whose major client is the all-powerful E (or Evil) Corp.  He’s also recruited, though–or at least he thinks he is–by fsociety, a band of vigilante hackers led by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) out of a deserted arcade in Coney Island.  Working with them, Elliott frames one of Evil Corp’s senior executives for fsociety’s own hack, which Mr. Robot says will start a tide to social revolution.

Episode 2:  Series creator Sam Esmail both wrote and directed Mr. Robot‘s second outing, and the result maintained the pilot’s strange, compelling flow.  In some ways, since this episode didn’t provide a thriller-level hack as its narrative underpinning, it was even more unconventional than the pilot.  Esmail keeps us on our toes, lulling us with moments in which Elliott seems to be moving toward a more acceptable brand of TV normalcy, and then yanking the rug out from beneath us.

The episode picked up its story from the pilot, as Elliott received, and declined, a job offer from Evil Corp, returning instead to his McJob at the cybersecurity firm, and what he thought would be his socially forward work with fsociety.  Mr. Robot, though, wanted Elliott to remotely program a gas plant to blow up, so that it would destroy the corporate records site located nearby, making permanent the effect of the group’s hacks, but also causing almost certain death and destruction.  Elliott refused, even when Mr. Robot said he could never return to fsociety in that case, and the show angled into what seemed at first like a more conventionally plotted detour, as Elliott met the supplier of his neighbor/dealer/occasional bed partner Shayla (Frances Shaw), a punk arms dealer who had committed some form of date rape on Shayla.  Elliott was so disgusted by the man that he leaked the criminal operation to the cops, even though that meant his drug supply would vanish and he’d be forced to go cold turkey.  Elliott was willing to do this, and he even figured out how to destroy the Evil Corp records without blowing the gas line.  With Elliott now drug-free and his neighbor saved, the episode appeared headed for some version of a heartwarming ending, as Mr. Robot insisted on hearing the story of Elliott’s father’s death, and how his dad had demanded that 8-year old Elliott not tell his mother about his father’s leukemia, and had been so angry when Elliott did tell that he pushed the boy out of a window, breaking his arm.  But no–Mr. Robot abruptly ended the episode by telling Elliott his father had been right to be furious about the boy’s betrayal of his trust, and he pushed Elliott off the Coney Island embankment where they were sitting.

It was all deeply odd, and paced both intensely and with space to allow Mr. Robot’s cohort Darlene (Carly Chaikin, who was Dahlia on Suburgatory) and the drug dealer to express themselves with almost theatrical monologues.  Mr. Robot casts such a spell that when it briefly indulged itself in an in-joke (some of the names on e-mails seen on a character’s screen referred to senior USA Network executives like Bonnie Hammer), it came as a minor shock.  Esmail shoots with an eye to eccentricity, playing tricks with focus and angles so that even dialogue scenes have an arresting look, and he trusts Malek to hold all of this together, which he does, with an affectlessness that barely masks the turmoil within.

Mr. Robot‘s opening ratings, while not bad, were far from the level of a runaway hit, and with its serialized, oddball feel, so different from everything else its network airs, it may be hard pressed to build greatly during the season.  But the network renewed it for Season 2 before the pilot even aired, so it has no ratings worries.  With 20 hours of television at his disposal, Esmail will have plenty of canvas to work out whatever he intends this artwork to be.


PILOT + 1: Does USA know it’s airing this show?

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."