TV review: ‘Mr. Robot’ a hactivist drama with human code

Rami Malek as Elliot in “Mr. Robot” on USA.
Rami Malek as Elliot in “Mr. Robot” on USA. Sarah Shatz/USA Network

“Mr. Robot” premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA.

Even though cybersecurity meltdowns are in the news every day, it’s still difficult to translate the excitement of Hackerville into a good TV drama. (Look no further than CBS' stultifying “CSI: Cyber”.) USA’s impressive pilot episode for “Mr. Robot,” however, delivers something more human and complex than the usual search terms of a tech-flavored procedural.

Rami Malek stars as Elliot, a talented programmer who works for a security firm that protects big corporations from hackers; at night, however, Elliot is a secret hacker, meting out vigilante justice to child pornographers and other online baddies. Elliot struggles with social anxiety disorder, keeping his psychological issues at bay by snorting morphine (a fact he fails to tell his therapist, played by “ER’s” Gloria Reuben).

Susceptible to Illuminati-like conspiracy theories, Elliot is recruited into a group of anonymous hacktivists led by the mysterious Mr. Robot, which brings me to the only bad news I have to report about the show: Mr. Robot is played by Christian Slater, who, after all these years, still has just the one acting style.

In an obvious way, “Mr. Robot” seems to be setting itself up to be another semi-stylish thriller in the network’s usual manner; but in its better moments, the show artfully depicts some of the paranoia of the Edward Snowden era and is vaguely reminiscent of AMC’s lamentably short-lived “Rubicon,” keeping a murky distinction between what is real and what is just a figment of the protagonist’s addled sense of perception.

Elliot may just be another of TV’s millennial hackers-in-hoodies, but Malek’s subtle yet strong performance indicates that there is something wounded and believable about this kid, drawing out the viewer’s sympathies – and suspicions.