Imagine a show that combines the anti-corporate craziness of Fight Club with the subversive hacker heroism of The Matrix. Add some great acting, and a fascinating conspiracy that’s unfolding in the hazy realm between our dystopian nightmares and hard reality. That’s Mr. Robot, which debuted last night on USA.

Spoilers ahead!

Of course, it actually debuted last month on YouTube, in a rarely-seen move to release a TV pilot online before its airdate. But it paid off — the pilot proved so popular that the network has already picked up the series for a second season. And with good reason. The show centers on hacker Elliot (played with a brilliant, dissociated intensity by Rami Malek), who is a kind of Robin Hood digital outlaw. When he’s not working his shitty tech job at a featureless “cybersecurity” company, he does things like hunt down pedophiles online and bring them to digital justice.

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He also watches over his best friend and colleague Angela, as well as his kind therapist Krista, trying to prevent them from getting tangled up with men whose data trails reveal them to be jerks at best and predatory at worst.

But somebody else is watching over Elliot — in fact, maybe more than one somebody. He meets a mysterious hacker called Mr. Robot (played with campy snark by Christian Slater), who leads a group called FSociety, which is trying to bring down the world’s entire financial system one data center at a time. They’re sort of like a version of the Occupy movement, crossed with Anonymous, crossed with people who actually know what they are doing.

And they have a seriously badass hideout in an old video arcade.

In the pilot episode, Mr. Robot asks Elliot to steal some data from his company, and he finally decides to do it — partly because the company fires his friend Angela. Using the data, FSociety is able to bring down one of the executives at Elliot’s company, framing him for a hack that FSociety itself initiated. But why this company? Why Elliot?

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We discover that Elliot’s company has basically one client, an Enron-esque outfit that Elliot calls Evil Corp (we never know what it’s really called, which is one of the many smart, appealing details about this show). FSociety’s real target is Evil Corp. After ousting the executive, Elliot’s in deep with them, though he’s not sure exactly what that means. There are also high-level people at his company who are suddenly taking a weird interest in him, due to his hacker skills. Do they know about his involvement with FSociety? Do they want to use him for nefarious Illuminati shit?

Given that Elliot is prone to flights of fancy that verge on hallucinations — and is fond of amphetamines — we’re not entirely sure what’s real and what’s in his head. And that’s part of what makes this show such an enjoyable thriller. As Elliot says in one of his many angry internal monologues, we’re living in a world where social media has turned all our relationships into marketing ploys. Who knows what is real when friends are commodities and the government watches our every move?

With its five-minutes-into-the-future dystopianism and genuinely sympathetic (though slightly scary) hero, Mr. Robot is a show that hits a nerve. Though it has some cheesy moments, and the tech references feel a little dated (somebody proves their “cred” by talking about how he uses the Gnome desktop with Linux), Mr. Robot gets major points for trying to imagine what would happen if Anonymous really could challenge the financial system. Plus, its refreshing to have an anti-social hacker hero who isn’t a virginal nerd stereotype — we see Elliot getting some during a drug-fueled hookup, which only makes him more lonely for real friendship.

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If you’re craving a smart techno-thriller this summer, check out Mr. Robot. It’s going to be an interesting ride.


Contact the author at annalee@gizmodo.com.
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