Screen Test

Skewed realities

Mr Robot's (above, from left) Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Rami Malek; and actor Will Forte in The Last Man On Earth.
Mr Robot's (above, from left) Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Rami Malek; and actor Will Forte in The Last Man On Earth.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Mr Robot's Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Rami Malek; and actor Will Forte (above) in The Last Man On Earth.
Mr Robot's Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday and Rami Malek; and actor Will Forte (above) in The Last Man On Earth.PHOTO: YOUTUBE

Cyber-conspiracy thriller Mr Robot and apocalypse story The Last Man On Earth offer an unusual look at the genres

Many television shows seem tailor- made for today's distracted viewer, with storylines predictable enough that you can keep one eye on the screen and another on your mobile phone without missing too much.

Mr Robot, on the other hand, both requires and deserves your undivided attention.

This cyber-conspiracy thriller has been the most talked-about new show on American television this year, taking viewers by surprise by upending one of the most unshakeable conventions in storytelling: the reliable narrator.

With this, it creates a sense of paranoia that perfectly frames a biting analysis of privacy and power in the Internet age, where non-state actors such as corporations and hackers wield growing influence.

  • MR ROBOT SEASON 1

    4.5/5 stars

    THE LAST MAN ON EARTH SEASON 1

    4/5 stars

The result is like nothing else on the small screen.

The narrator is an IT engineer named Elliot (Rami Malek), who looks directly into the camera to chat to the audience, whom he addresses as his friend.

A socially anxious morphine addict, he toils at a cyber-security firm whose biggest client is E Corp, an all-powerful conglomerate with tentacles in everything from the tech sector to credit cards.

After hours, Elliot is far more interesting: He is a hacker who uses his prodigious skills to spy on childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), neighbour Shayla (Frankie Shaw), therapist Krista (Gloria Reuben) or anyone else he deems interesting, compiling dossiers of their deepest, darkest secrets.

As creepy as that sounds, he is nonetheless a sympathetic figure because of his vulnerability and the fact that he uses his gifts for good - to expose a child pornographer, for instance, or the cheating boyfriend of his therapist, who is outed in a storyline that would foreshadow the Ashley Madison hack.

Elliot is approached by F-Society, a hacker collective led by the mysterious Mr Robot (Christian Slater), to help it with a dangerous plan to hack into E Corp and erase some of its critical servers.

Because the company owns most of the world's consumer debt, this would make millions debt-free overnight, resulting in the single biggest wealth redistribution in human history.

But the sharp-eyed viewer soon notices details that do not add up: Other characters start referring to E Corp as "Evil Corp", which is Elliot's pet name for it - one of the first clues that the viewer is seeing a skewed version of reality filtered through his eyes.

The viewer then starts questioning everything, notably whether Mr Robot really exists or is a figment of the imagination, and if Elliot's relationships with other people are as they seem.

The rest of the constantly shifting narrative - which is at turns nail- biting, mind-bending, witty and sad - is too good to spoil.

A feature on many US critics' best-of-2015 lists, one hopes this will be aired in Singapore soon.

Another show that needs to come here is The Last Man On Earth, if for no other reason than there simply aren't enough post- apocalyptic comedies.

When it comes to Hollywood's obsession with the end of the world, the usual culprits are zombies, robots, aliens and pestilence. Here, it is technically the latter - a virus - which kills everyone, but the show takes the smart decision to begin well after this has happened.

Instead, the story focuses on Phil Miller (Will Forte) who, after driving from one corner of the US to another, comes to the depressing conclusion that he is, indeed, the last person on the planet.

Whereas other apocalypse stories celebrate the common man triumphing against the odds, this revels in the exact opposite: that mankind's last and best hope now resides in a bumbling, slovenly, cowardly fool who, now that there is no one left to stop him, uses an inflatable children's pool as his margarita bowl - and a real pool as his toilet.

When his prayers of finding a woman alive are finally answered, the comedy comes from the fact that Carol (Kristen Schaal) is just as flawed and annoying as he is, and each has to forge a connection with someone they would otherwise probably have rejected.

The first season of the show, which picked up nominations for Best Writing, Best Direction and Best Actor in a Comedy at this year's Emmys, is dark and funny in all the right places.

This starts to run out of steam a bit in Season 2, which is currently being shown in the US, but with its keen eye for human foibles, both the basic premise and each comedic complication still seem utterly plausible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Skewed realities'. Print Edition | Subscribe