July 14, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Mr. Robot”


USA Network has handed its keys to Sam Esmail and MR. ROBOT, and with good reason.  Although it was only a moderate success in the ratings last year, the series gave creaky old USA a jolt of pure critical adrenaline, becoming a zeitgeist show at a time when the sheer clutter of new television product makes that increasingly difficult to do.  In Season 2, Esmail has been given 2 more hours to play with (for a total of 12, of which 2 aired as a super-sized season premiere tonight), freed from the burden of having his profanities bleeped, and allowed to direct every episode as well as serving as showrunner and central writer, a feat that makes Steven Soderbergh’s non-writing direction of all The Knick episodes seem like a vacation.  Esmail, whose previous credit was an indie that barely saw the inside of an arthouse, has proven to be a TV prodigy, and the season premiere suggests that although Mr. Robot will be a somewhat different beast this time around, it’s still spellbinding in a way that’s completely its own.

The shift is a necessity, because much of Season 1 revolved around a Big Twist, and now the Fight Club secret is out, and even Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) knows that Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the apparent head of the fSociety hacking collective, is actually the product of his dissociative personality disorder, a split personality in the form of Elliot’s late father.  That realization immediately preceded Season 1’s climactic event, the 5/9 hack of what Elliot’s mind perceives to be the multinational called Evil Corp, laying waste to the global financial system by erasing all record of debt.

Season 2 finds both Elliot and the world in general desperately trying to stay in control of a universe awash in chaos.  For Elliot, that means an obsessive devotion to routine and structure.  He’s moved back in with his authoritative mother, has acquired a friend-like companion named Leon (rapper Joey Bada$$) who’s fine with Elliot simply listening passively to his monologues about Seinfeld, he attends church groups, and pretends to watch pick-up basketball games.  All of this works about as well as Elliot’s self-medicating with morphine in Season 1, which is to say that whenever Mr. Robot surfaces, their relationship is now so antagonistic that Mr. Robot often ends up shooting Elliot in the head when Elliot demands to know the whereabouts of enigmatically evil Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallstrom), who was with Elliot during the hack and hasn’t been seen since.  This material flirts with crazy-person cliche, but it’s riveting because of Esmail’s taut, off-center filmmaking, and the sensational performances of Malek and Slater.  Malek continues to bring a depth of emotional pain to Elliot that makes him much more than a gimmick, and the newly sentient version of Mr. Robot gives Slater richer material to play than last season’s incarnation.

Much of the premiere, though, was devoted to other characters in the larger world.  Elliot’s sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin) is uneasily trying to run fSociety on her own, in the face of the ravages being felt by society post-hack, and Evil Corp’s stubborn refusal to die.  Evil Corp, for its part, is represented by the magnetically soulless Philip Price (Michael Cristofer), and the newly-introduced General Counsel Susan Jacobs (Sandrine Holt).  In a witty tour-de-force sequence, fSociety hacks Jacobs’s smart-house–a sequence that’s like an epic riff on the 1970s thriller Demon Seed–in order to make her vacate so they can take the luxurious house over as their headquarters.  Meanwhile, Elliot’s friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), originally an Evil Corp foe, may or may not have been seduced by the dark side and her new job in the company’s PR department.  We also briefly met FBI agent Dom DiPierro (Grace Gummer) and the ambiguous Ray (Craig Robinson), who may be an amiable dog-owner in Elliot’s neighborhood–or maybe not.

The 90-minute premiere was crammed with virtuoso moments, from that smart-house attack to an fSociety action in which an Evil Corp executive was forced to publicly burn $5.9M, gorgeously scored to a Phil Collins song.  Esmail has a true vision, both as a filmmaker (he even works in a mini-nod to paranoid thriller classic The Parallax View) and a social commentator who has his finger on the dislocation and suspicion that seem to be everywhere these days.  There’s hardly a shot, a cut or a musical cue that’s less than memorable.

Mr. Robot couldn’t exist without Esmail, but USA deserves credit for taking a deep breath and letting the auteur do his thing.  The result will never achieve Walking Dead popularity–it’s too strange for that, and disturbing in ways zombie thrillers could never achieve.  But it’s the most exciting piece of pop culture around.

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."