“Mr. Robot,” which premieres tonight on USA Network, could not be more timely. The hacker drama was greenlit just hours after the FBI confirmed it believes North Korea was behind the massive Sony Pictures Entertainment cyber-attack.
“I had nothing to do with that,” creator Sam Esmail jokes. With a laugh, he adds, “Obviously I don’t want what happened to Sony to happen, but I’ll take a series order any day of the week.”
Though “Mr. Robot” was in the works long before Sony’s crisis and even the 2014 photo hack, which exposed personal nude photos of many celebrities, Esmail says the incidents are only further proof that the subject matter has earned its place on television.
“People are seeing the consequences of some kids hacking into a computer network. It makes our show that much more believable and relatable to their world,” the writer and exec producer tells Variety. “Before, people didn’t quite get when a guy is on a computer how dangerous that can be, but now that it’s become more in the culture and people are witnessing it and seeing the real damage it can cause, I think they can buy into that a kid at a keyboard can be incredibly dangerous.”
Referring to “The Interview,” he added, “I mean, a whole studio had to cancel a movie release over it. People are leaving their jobs.”
“Mr. Robot” was first put on the map by winning the audience award at the SXSW festival earlier this year in Texas. The first episode also screened at the Tribeca Film Festival and this past weekend’s inaugural SeriesFest in Denver, Co.
Pointing out the “obsessive” attention to detail in the writers’ room when it comes to the complicated language and complexities with hacking, Esmail and star Christian Slater both vouch for the series’ authenticity. “I was thrilled that there were some real tech guys there in Austin when we screened it and they were very complimentary with how realistic it is,” Slater recalls of the Texas-based SXSW. “That’s a good review you want to get from those guys.”
Rami Malek (pictured), who takes on a star-turning role as a young computer programmer who suffers from an anti-social disorder and connects to people by hacking them, tells Variety the series is unlike anything on television. “It’s extremely relevant and timely, and it’s written in the way that attracted me from a script point of view. It is very cinematic. I thought it was really creative and engaging.”
Esmail agrees that “Mr. Robot” uniquely stands out from past TV and film projects that have covered the hacking genre, resulting in “hokey, forced and inauthentic” subject matter. “I really wanted to do a show that represents what the hacker culture is,” he explains of the series’ genesis. “It’s fascinating, it’s compelling and the power that they have, it’s extraordinary.”
Even with all the relevance and room to learn, Esmail isn’t setting out to teach a course on Hacking 101. Rather, he’s hoping larger underlying themes will start up some chatter.
“There is an anger that I think everyone senses in society with where we’re at, especially since the financial collapse and the income inequality, not just in America, but internationally,” the EP says, alluding to Slater’s mysterious cult-leader-type character wanting to erase debt society, by way of luring young programmers, including Malek’s Elliot, into his secret hacking organization. “Debt labor is a huge, huge issue, and I don’t know if we’re trying to say something about it, but we definitely think it’s a conversation people should be having. I think we just want to bring it to the forefront.”
The dark drama subliminally provides commentary on current events — the pilot flashes images of Lance Armstrong and Bill Cosby, for starters — which is fitting, as Esmail was inspired to start writing the script by the Arab Spring in 2011. “There is an event, unprecedented in the Middle East, where there were a bunch of young kids angry about what was going on who used technology and leveraged it against the older, controlling generation and really caused a change,” he says. “It’s that sort of revolutionary spirit that is intrinsic in the show.”
That very spirit is what Esmail hopes prevails. “I think it’s always going to be about characters and people, and not about the genre of the subject matter. At the end of the day, it’s about two guys trying to connect and I think that’s a very universal, relatable theme that people can connect to,” he says. “I think the hacking thing adds that sexiness because we’ve never quite seen it in this way, but ultimately, I think it’s going to more about the people and less about the hacking.”
Slater, for one, says the characters is what drew him to the project. “The whole premise of the show is fascinating. I like the mysteriousness of the guy that not everything is revealed in the pilot,” the actor says of his character. “You don’t really know who this guy is and what the full agenda is.”
Malek shares the same sentiment: “It told a really special story, an inspiring story, yet a really conflicted one at the same time.”