USA’s beguiling ‘Mr. Robot’ returns as appointment TV for bummed-out Bernie Bros

Rami Malek (left) as Elliot Alderson and Christian Slater as Mr. Robot in USA's "Mr. Robot." CREDIT: Peter Kramer, USA Network

USA’s intensely sullen but impressively imagined drama series “Mr. Robot,” last year’s surprise hit, returns for a second season Wednesday night and the big question remains: Is it even better if you watch it stoned?

Created by 38-year-old Sam Esmail (who will also direct every episode in Season 2, a Herculean task for a showrunner), “Mr. Robot” works in some obvious ways, mostly as a stick-it-to-the-Man fantasy drawn from the imagery of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, celebrating the ways technology can disrupt an oppressive status quo. It’s also a nice release for people feeling suffocated by student loans and mortgages, or who sense the abyss below as the wealth gap continues to widen. Think of it as appointment TV for bummed-out Bernie Bros.

In Season 1 (which is discussed here, including some major plot points), a socially awkward and deeply troubled employee of a Manhattan high-tech security firm, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), was lured by the mysterious Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) into joining a secret group of hacktivists known as fsociety.

Operating out of a run-down Coney Island arcade, fsociety eventually pulled off its biggest coup, “the Five/Nine Attack,” targeting the servers of the global conglomerate E Corp (aka “Evil Corp”), which controls most of the credit industry. Fsociety effectively wiped out records of billions of dollars in consumer debt – and tauntingly so, broadcasting videos of a masked man who promises more chaos in the name of redistributing wealth and saving the world. Crowds in Times Square cheered the results.

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Though his day job ostensibly included protecting E Corp from hackers, Elliot’s sympathies already leaned toward applied uses of techno-anarchy. When we met him he was acting as a vigilante hacker who went after small-time bad guys, and it initially seemed USA might have landed on a grittier, more artistic concept for a procedural series about the white-hat/black-hat dichotomy of the dark Internet.

But Elliot’s troubles ran deeper. By its second episode, “Mr. Robot” became a weird, surrealistic trip with a big shocker near the season finale: Mr. Robot is a hallucination! (Dude!) He’s Edward Alderson, Elliot’s late father, a fearsome presence when he was alive and more so now that he’s a figment of Elliot’s psyche. In a moment of clarity, Elliot realized there is no Mr. Robot; or, more simply, that he is Mr. Robot, a key part of fsociety’s hacking scheme.

For all its ingenuity and WikiLeaks-style revolutionary vigor, Esmail’s show isn’t 100 percent groundbreaking. “Mr. Robot’s” debts include the insomniac rumblings of David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Fight Club” and the deliberately slow, emotionally antiseptic films of Christopher Nolan. You can also sense faint influences from “The Matrix,” the films of M. Night Shyamalan, the later seasons of “Lost” and just about any show or movie that prefers to take a roundabout path to objective truth.

By building a story on the uncertain foundation of the narrator’s perception of reality, “Mr. Robot” presents itself as a complex loop, a puzzle that never quite resolves. That style is perfectly suited to an audience that prefers the challenge in unconventional narratives.

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It’s never too late to ask yourself if you’re the kind of viewer who digs this approach or if you’re the kind of viewer who finds it all too plodding and difficult to follow – maddening, even, given that “Mr. Robot” is a wild departure from the simpler crime shows USA used to make. Critical acclaim is nice, but so is the reassurance that a story is actually headed somewhere in the hour you have to give it.

Having watched Season 1 twice (and the first 90 minutes of Season 2) and still not entirely sure about the finer details, might I suggest a third approach?

Watch “Mr. Robot” simply for its beguiling oddness, personified in Malek’s outstanding, trip-wired lead performance. With his brilliantly buggy eyes and tortured grasp on reality, Elliot represents a modern sense of alienation. He’s a new kind of antihero; even his kindest deeds are rooted in the Snowdenesque arrogance of breached security. He’s another young man in a hoodie who seems haunted beyond reach. “Mr. Robot” often comes across as pure nihilism, yet a central ethic runs through it – a cautionary tale of 21st-century distrust and ruin, visualized and portrayed with a poetic sense of control.

Through Elliot’s eyes, Esmail depicts an emotionally frosty metropolis of self-interested capitalists and unhinged rebels. It’s another one of those shows in which everyone carries deep wounds and finds little or no solace. People here are angry, depressed, confused and dangerous.

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Season 2 begins a month or so after the E Corp hack. Elliot has retreated into a world of enforced and unplugged discipline, living in his mother’s apartment and adhering to strict daily routines, which include attending group counseling sessions in a church basement and taking his meals at the same diner each day with his friend Leon (Joey Bada$$). Most important, he’s staying off the Internet.

Knowing what we know about Elliot, it could all be a hallucination, but he dutifully scribbles these activities in a daily journal, trying to keep the voice of his father at bay. It doesn’t work for long – and this is as good a place as any for my begrudging admission that Slater could not be more perfect for the part of Elliot’s father and tormentor. (It’s the best work he’s had in, well, forever.)

The rest of the season premiere lays out a plan for furthering the story – Elliot’s sister, Darlene (Carly Chaikin), also an fsociety hacker, pushes ahead with next phase of attack on Evil Corp in her brother’s absence, while Elliot and Darlene’s childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), continues to work inside the E Corp beast as a PR flack – but is she friend or foe? New characters also come along, one of them played, surprisingly, by “The Office’s” Craig Robinson.

For viewers who like to study in groups, USA has added one of those geeky after-shows (“Hacking Robot”) to talk through the latest episodes – a sure sign that “Mr. Robot” has struck a nerve and perhaps an acknowledgment that many of us look to recappers and other know-it-alls to decipher what we just saw.

Though I needn’t abuse you with an entire think piece about this (for now), it’s worth noting that “Mr. Robot” seems to be of a piece with a Slow TV movement, joining other dramas that are encrypted with philosophical tangents, existential puzzles, and moods that are so morose they ought to come with toll-free counseling hotlines. They can be icy and insightful (I’m still mulling over the subdued moral indifference in Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”) and also dreadfully lugubrious (name something that sounds like less fun than the final, upcoming season of HBO’s “The Leftovers”).

“Mr. Robot” asks an entire generation of harried and hurried viewers to pay attention, think about it and, most of all, wallow in it.

“Mr. Robot (90 minutes) returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. CT on USA. Followed by Hacking Robot (10:30 p.m. CT), a discussion hosted by Andy Greenwald.