Hack to The Future

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If entertainment is how we escape from the ills of the world, we sure are making some curious viewing choices these days. In the wake of high-profile, high-tech hacking and spying incidents, a glut of programming focused on the dark side of technology has risen to prominence, including USA Network’s Mr. Robot, Fox’s revival of The X-Files and Showtime’s new Dark Net. The popularity of some of these series—Mr. Robot shocked many as the big winner at last month’s Golden Globes—means it’s likely the beginning of a trend in programming related to hacking, snooping and other cyber-skulduggery. So get used to the gloom.

“It feels like every day, there’s some new headline about an individual or a company being hacked,” said Heather Olander, senior VP of alternative development at Syfy, which debuts The Internet Ruined My Life—an unscripted series on the perils of living in the digital age—March 9. “It’s hit news, and it’s hit popular culture. In the hacker space specifically, there’s a lot of development happening.”

Indeed, amid all the technological advances we’ve enjoyed as a society, digital ubiquity presents a fresh batch of challenges. A year ago, retail giant Target announced it would pay $10 million to settle a class action suit involving as many as 40 million credit and debit card accounts. Late in 2014, a shadowy organization calling itself Guardians of Peace leaked a trove of confidential data from Sony Pictures Entertainment. High-profile leakers such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have emerged as household names—heroes to some, traitors to others. Movies have tapped this vein a bit. HBO’s film about Snowden, Citizenfour, won the 2015 Academy Award for best documentary. Less of a smash: Benedict Cumber-batch donning a white-blond wig to play Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Television series can go much deeper, though, and the new crop of shows is delving into technology’s dubious underbelly in a range of different ways. A hacker and a leaker were key characters in the most recent season of Homeland on Showtime. Dark Net, which explores “the side of the Internet few have ever seen,” debuted Jan. 21. The premiere told the stories of a woman whose life was nearly ruined when an ex-boyfriend posted salacious photos of her online; of a long distance romance between a dominatrix and a submissive, carried out online; and a young man in love with a digital avatar, who eschews the companionship of human partners.

Dark Net is developed by Vocativ, a news and technology platform that explores the “deep Web”—the digital matter (and chatter) that our popular search engines don’t access—for troubling trends. Vivian Schiller, former president and CEO of NPR and head of news at Twitter, is an executive producer on the show. “We live in a transitional period,” said Mati Kochavi, Vocativ’s founder and the program’s creator. “We are much more digital, but still don’t know what it really means, and how it affects our lives.”

Gary Levine, Showtime president of programming, said the docuseries captures the odd dynamic between something that brings us pleasure and convenience daily, yet is something we may not understand the full ramifications of. “In the midst of everyone enjoying the undeniable benefits of technology, we thought we’d shine a little light on the realities of technology’s underbelly,” he told B&C.

Art Imitating Life

Governmental snooping is a noisy theme in the new X-Files, and the second episode features a mysterious suicide at a secretive tech firm. Creator Chris Carter told B&C how the nation’s attitude toward being monitored changed dramatically post-Sept. 11, with people much more willing to give up personal freedoms for an increased feeling of security. “We’ve upped our game in the conspiracy aspect of the show,” he said before the show’s successful relaunch. “We looked to our government to protect us [after Sept. 11], and now we see a blatant abuse of that.”

Other series offer their own take on tech’s pernicious grasp. In the fall, Netflix ordered a new season of buzzy U.K. drama Black Mirror, which it described as “sharp, suspenseful tales exploring themes of contemporary techno-paranoia.” Netflix’s dense drama Sense8 also deals with how technology both unites and divides people. Crackle, for its part, chose drama Startup, about a controversial tech concept that falls into the hands of reprobates, as its second-ever original scripted drama.

To be sure, the concept of cyber-hacking and snooping on TV is not a new one. Christian Slater, who picked up a best supporting actor Golden Globe for his work on Mr. Robot, had the lead in short-lived Fox comedy Breaking In, about a rogue security firm assigned to hack various high-tech security systems. Fox canceled it in 2012. CBS’ Person of Interest, about a pair of cyber-sleuths, debuted in 2011; CSI: Cyber in 2015.

Dystopia itself has been the focus of TV series dating back at least to the iconoclastic Twilight Zone. And this era of peak TV has largely been defined by antiheroes who dwell in that gray area between black and white. Walter White, Don Draper and Tony Soprano showed that mass audiences will go along for the ride on dark series, as long as the characters and story lines are compelling.

The tech paranoia series push the moral ambiguity even further. It’s increasingly difficult to figure out the good guys from the bad guys, and the victims from the perpetrators. In Dark Net, the show’s subjects, the casualties of tech overload, live mostly ordinary, humdrum lives that many viewers will relate to. In Mr. Robot, idealistic hackers run roughshod over laws to attack a corporation, all the while reminding us that we’re all just a few keystrokes away from having our deepest digital secrets revealed.

“People are terrified of hackers,” said Chad Hamilton, executive producer of Mr. Robot. “These shows play into that paranoia.”

Dom Caristi, Ball State University professor of telecommunications, posits that the dark-tech themes on TV may have migrated from the video game world, where such motifs have long been common. “They may not be the main theme of games, but underlying them may be this dark side of technology thinking,” he said, citing the Portal and Half-Life franchises.

Golden ‘Robot’

The tech-paranoia subgenre has a star performer these days in Mr. Robot, whose anxious first season was a departure from USA’s traditional bluesky originals. The series is centered around a misfit named Elliot who toils at a cyber-security firm and joins a hacker collective that sets out to bring down an evil corporate behemoth.

The show, which creator Sam Esmail has noted was picked up the same day the Sony hack was made public, has proven eerily prescient. At one point, Elliot hacks a foe’s profile on Ashley Madison, the dating site for those looking for extramarital flings. When Ashley Madison was hacked in real life after the episode aired, Esmail explained that his name surfaced on shame lists because of the research he’d done for the series. “That was an awkward conversation,” he quipped last October at a Paley Center for Media event in New York.

The success of Mr. Robot, which beat out Fox’s Empire, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s Narcos, among others, for the best drama Golden Globe, was a surprise to just about everyone. “This is a weird show—there’s no getting around that,” said Esmail. “My highest expectation was, hopefully it’ll be a little cult hit.”

As is the nature of Hollywood, its success means series with similar themes will follow. Amidst new pilot orders, APB, from Person of Interest’s David Slack, is about a tech billionaire with an unorthodox philosophy on fighting crime. Mr. Robot showed that hacking, which may not seem to make for compelling television, can thrill on screen. “People chase hot concepts,” said one network exec who asked to go unnamed. “Mr. Robot has swung open the door, and showed that a show set in the tech space can work. It helps people embrace other shows in this space.”

For her part, Syfy’s Olander says a second season of The Internet Ruined My Life is a real possibility, given the great unknown that technology represents, and the surfeit of victims it claims. “The stories are endless, and there’s no case law, no history,” she said. “We’re really just dipping our toe in the water here.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.