Influences can be a double-edged sword; thought they're often the catalyst that sparks new creative ideas, slavish adherence to them can bury a project under the weight of unreasonably high expectations. Given creator Sam Esmail's not-so subtle reverence for films like Fight Club and American Psycho, Mr. Robot should fall in the latter category.
The ten-episode first season follows Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a cybersecurity drone by day, vigilante hacker by night who suffers from social anxiety and depression. He's recruited by an Anonymous analogue hacker group called fsociety, led by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). fsociety's goal is to wipe the servers of multinational bank E Corp with a massive cyber attack, thereby wiping out huge swaths of the world's debt. Standing in their way is Tyrell Wellick, a Patrick Bateman-esque E Corp exec who takes a particular interest in Elliot.
Elliot is an unlikely choice for a lead character. Paranoid and socially inept — the result of a mental illness — he self-medicates with morphine, sleeping with his insecure and co-dependent dealer while invading the privacy of everyone he knows by hacking their social media accounts and banking records. Yet Rami Malek manages to create a dynamic, sympathetic character that's as much a victim as the friends he hacks. And hats off to Esmail who, over the course of the season's short run, manages to maintain multiple story threads while still building an ensemble cast into fully developed characters.
Esmail is well aware of his influences, even tipping his hat to Fight Club by inserting Maxence Cyrin's version of the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?," the song that plays over the final scene of David Fincher's film, into the season's ninth episode. Though the show's themes and basic hook are reminiscent of that movie, though, the way they play out here is far different.
Unfortunately, it's the demands of the medium that ultimately hinder Mr. Robot from reaching its full potential. The program began life as a film script, and it's evident that first season was originally intended to be the movie's first act. Though the season's final episode offers viewers a cliffhanger whetting appetites for the inevitable second season, there are too many plot threads left untied to feel like a satisfying ending. Whether Esmail, who wrote half of the first season's scripts, can bring it all together remains to be seen.
Mr. Robot is a product of its origins, for better and for worse. Its first season is a tense and intriguing cyber thriller whose quality will ultimately only be substantiated — or undone — by subsequent seasons.