This is what I imagine it is like in the writer’s room for Mr. Robot. There is a hat they pass around. A fedora. Inside are scraps of paper with the titles of films very popular with white men in the 18 to 35 year old demographic. Someone reaches in the hat, pulls out and unfolds a scrap and announces:
“Sweet. Today we’re doing Empire Strikes Back.”
If I were to try to hack into the account of one of the writers for this television show, I might first try the password “tylerdurd3n.” The show wants you to know its influences like a kid filling out a MySpace profile for the first time.
I started watching Mr. Robot thinking it was for me — someone interested in tech politics, security, internet culture — but it really isn’t. It is for someone who has Fight Club, Trainspotting, and Seven on DVD on a shelf above his bed. And maybe Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk in tattered paperbacks next to 48 Laws of Power and Sex at Dawn on a sparse shelf. Some Russian novels. Science fiction tilting more heavily toward Stephenson than Gibson and a smattering of left politics: No Logo, Rules for Radicals, some Chomsky.
The internet has always had these kind of guys listing these books and films as all time best in Reddit or IMDB threads. They are the bros of the internet, sometimes the users, sometimes the trolls. Now finally they have a television show to call their own.
….But it is good! The way contemporary issues around privacy and a networked society are filtered down for this audience is crazy fun to watch. Somehow with all its baggage — obvious references, underdeveloped characters, and making infosec dramatic — it somehow never fails to be entertaining. If nothing else, you have to hand it to them that Wired, The Verge, PC Mag and elsewhere are lauding the show for its technical accuracy.
In one of my favorite scenes Elliot, the isolated, schizophrenic computer genius explains how looking at a source code on a website works. It is a clever bit of writing that works due to the voice over. Mr. Robot just gave its audience an elementary tutorial to webpages. But there was a reason for this lesson. He next muses how he wishes he could see the source codes of human beings and, in an imaginative bit of filming, we see people at his office wearing various signs that reveal their secrets.
Elliott is a complex and compelling character, but the women on the show are given very little apart from damsel in distress situations or being subject to violence. The female characters aren’t just dull but hollow as if they were scripted by aliens who have, after several ethnographic research initiatives returned home to describe these long haired humanoids.
The show passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test, probably because the writers are internet-y enough to know what that is, and in doing so proves it is a terribly low bar. Here’s an approximation of the kind of Bechdel-Wallace-passing dialogue that happened when Elliott’s girlfriend meets his best friend:
“I’m going to take the dog for a walk. Want to come?”
“The dog really needs to go for a walk”
“We don’t have a set path. We go where the wind takes us.”
“Ok, let’s walk the dog together.”
Another female character, Darlene, who matches Elliott in hacking skills, is frustrating to watch. Instead of a female character who is independent because she is smart and strong willed, she is shallowly crass and aggressively one of the bros.
It is hard not to compare these actresses to the women on Halt and Catch Fire, but maybe this isn’t a fair comparison. The actresses on HACF were cast to be the next Christina Hendrix and Elizabeth Moss, while the actresses on Mr Robot were cast with the expectation they basically will get to play some dude’s sidepiece on Suits.
If Mr Robot is Palahniuk-inspired, Halt and Catch Fire is like an Elena Ferrante novel in comparison. Mr Robot is good where HACF is not so good, and it is bad where HACF is very good. And by the way, there is crossover slash, well sort of. Lee Pace and Rami Malik were both in Twilight, so:
Mr Robot gets high marks for a diverse cast. And then loses points again when it uses a character’s bisexuality as shorthand for his sociopathy (versus...) There’s a trans character who is treated respectfully, but you know, in 2015, is it that hard to cast a trans actress? Or even a trans actress in a role that was written for a cis woman?
These are issues Mr. Robot can work out. And I hope it will. It was quickly renewed for a second season. In the meantime, enjoy how something so brazen and over-the-top can get a mainstream audience excited over weird trivia like why how hackers love lockpicking or how a Faraday Cage works.