Pictured: Rami Malek as Elliot — (Photo by: Peter Kramer/USA Network)
The pilot episode, annoyingly titled “eps1.0_hellofriend.mov,” was made available for free viewing in advance of Wednesday’s premiere, presumably because Mr. Robot is such an Internet-heavy show and USA is banking on pre-air excitement (though the laughable posters on subway platforms aren’t doing much help). It’s a smart move, even if the episode is undeniably clunky at times — as many pilots are, especially USA’s. Sometimes it eschews the show-don’t-tell model to easily explain away Elliott’s personality. “I understand what it’s like to be different. I’m very different, too,” he says at one point; later, his voiceover informs us that he’s good at reading people because he “looks for the worst in everyone.” Other times, the pilot is just trying too hard: Elliott’s internal monologue waxes poetic about Steve Jobs profiting off “the backs of children”; he talks about how “our heroes are counterfeit” as images of Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby flash on the screen; there are references to the evilness of Black Friday, prescription pills, and even The Hunger Games.
But Rami Malek makes all of this work. Malek is an actor who has been sidelined for a while, but he steps into Elliott without a hitch, displaying a wide-eyed loneliness and a knack for delivering ranty dialogue in a believable, rather than cheesy, way. Malek makes Elliott’s complications — the disjointed and untrustworthy narration, the drug use, the delusions, the awkward interactions — into something real and engaging. He’s an unlikable character that you’ll root for.
It’s a good pilot, one that’s cool and confident, with skillful writing that could smooth out the wrinkles as the series goes on. But the big question is whether Mr. Robot will sustain such a strange, psychological, and hacker-heavy narrative for an entire season — it’s a little worrisome that only the pilot was sent to critics — or quickly crash on its own momentum.