It’s been called the best show on television right now — a thriller about a troubled young hacker who gets recruited into a mysterious hacker group that has him choose between his job and his ideals. Sounds a little trite, but Mr. Robot is anything but.
The show opened to legendary numbers, with 2.7 million viewers tuning in on multiple digital platforms before it aired on television. It currently holds a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the show was renewed by USA Network before that first episode was even broadcast.
So what is it about Mr. Robot that makes it so good?
First off, It’s well written. The inner monologue of the show’s main character is reminiscent of Fight Club (the plot, too) or even Taxi Driver, and the show is shot in a cinematic way that looks and feels much different from other TV shows. It’s dark and gritty, but with a retro vibe. Shots are off-kilter or framed in a way that adds tension. Characters appear on far sides or corners, and there’s heavy use of the rule of thirds and POV shots. Mr. Robotcould easily be something you’d see on Showtime or HBO, or even Netflix. But it’s not.
It also succeeds because of its revolutionary portrayal of hacking, and hackers. Many shows attempt this and often fail.
*NOTE: No spoilers ahead, I promise. But really, you should be watching this show.
The main character in Mr. Robot, Elliot, happens to be three-dimensional and not some all-powerful tech god as we’ve seen before in shows featuring hackers.
“When I first saw the pilot coming up on a year ago now, the first thing I thought was I know that guy, I know many people who I would identify as that guy” said Gregg Housh, a hacker consultant and renowned former Anonymous hacktivist.
Housh is well known in Anonymous circles for creating the influential first Anonymous protest video, “Message to Scientology,” and for helping create a lot of the Anonymous branding you see today, like the utilization of the Guy Fawkes mask. Housh said he loves all the nods to Anonymous in the show, from the use of a mask in video messages by the hacking group Elliot joins to the style of the videos, and credits some of Mr. Robot’s success to its emphasis on realism.
“We’re so used to shows like CSI: Cyber, shows like Scorpion, who get literally everything wrong they can’t even by accident get things right, they’re so bad,” Housh said.
In CBS’s Scorpion, for example, the hacker character has to nonsensically connect an ethernet cable from a laptop to a plane flying low over the runway — it can’t land for some ludicrous reason. That Mr. Robot can simply not show its supposedly brilliant hackers doing dumb things, alone, has made many a fan in the security industry.
The 1995 movie Hackers is a prime example of how show business has sensationalized hacking. Housh once met a producer and hacking consultant for the movie and said the guy could “barely use his phone” — a guy consulting specifically on scenes about hacking. Now, though, 20 years later, it seems Hollywood is actually making an effort to reach out to the hacking community, because “they’re learning that people really want this level of realism” Housh said, citing House of Cards and Breaking Bad as examples. (Housh worked as a consultant on the House of Cards.)
“When you look at what they are doing, sure every now and then there is little fumbles but 99 percent of what he is doing is stuff that people might actually do, it’s command lines, it’s typing it’s — there’s no giant 3D visuals, any Gibsons, it’s realistic,” Housh said.
That realism doesn’t stop with the portrayal of hacking in Mr. Robot, though. The show also taps into the frustrations many have toward the financial state of things, the general disillusionment with capitalism and many people’s struggles with debt.
In the show, Elliot and fsociety, the hacking social justice group akin to Anonymous that Elliot reluctantly joins, constantly talk about the oppressive nature of the current economic system. Their mission, after all, is to wipe out debt. Elliot’s childhood friend and coworker, Angela Moss, is on her own quest for justice and tells a lawyer she is motivated by her father’s mounting debt. Trenton, one of the women in fsociety, also cites both her parents’ massive debt, including student loan debt, as the reason for why she is part of the group.
According to the latest statistics from the federal reserve and other government data, Americans currently owe $11.86 trillion in debt, an increase of 1.9 percent from last year — with $8 trillion of that as mortgage debt. As for student loan debt, the average student owes just over $33,000. Every year we see headlines about how student loan debt keeps Millennials from buying houses and cars, delays marriages and children and defines them as “the lost generation.” It’s an “ongoing crisis” that has led many a lawmaker, from Democratic nominee hopeful Hillary Clinton to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, to even President Obama, to advocate for student loan reform.
While no one has tried to blow up any data centers (yet), frustration with our economic system is more palpable than ever. Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement? It has been ridiculed and labeled ineffective, but not if you see it as the physical manifestation of the nation’s collective rage — a rage over the recession, the debt burden so many people face, an economic system that has cheated many people out of their money and even their homes.
Mr. Robot, with its overall imagery and quotables like “The American Myth is a dream” and “Give a man a bank and he’ll rob the world,” captures the mood of the nation like nothing before it. Consider the opening monologue of the very first episode: “I’m talking about the people nobody knows about, the guys that are invisible … the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent. The guys who play God without permission.”
The audience identifies with Elliot, and his angst, because we know something is wrong with capitalism, and society in general, but we don’t know how to fix it. The ad campaign for the show, after all, consists of posters that bluntly read “F**k Society,” “F**k the System,” “F**k Wall St.” and even, “F**k Social Media.”
And let’s be honest here, the idea of all our debt being wiped out is kind of awesome. But will it happen? This uncertainty extends to the story arc, as well. We don’t know what will become of Elliot, or even if what he sees is real. Is Mr. Robot just a figment of his imagination? Is Mr. Robot really just a disgruntled villain? Or is Elliot himself the real Mr. Robot?
We don’t know, and that’s part of the fun.