“Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail says that his family’s experience with Arab Spring was the catalyst that made the final pieces of the show’s main character, Elliot, come together.
"Mr. Robot" revolves around Elliot, a detached programmer who gets involved with a revolutionary hacker group called “fsociety.”
The show has been widely praised for how accurately it portrays certain elements of hacking, especially compared to the many cheesy Hollywood deceptions of that world that have popped up over the years.
At a panel at South By Southwest on Sunday, Esmail said the hacking in “Mr. Robot” was informed by his own “nerdy” adolescence, which included a poor attempt at hacking in college that got him put on academic probation.
“I wanted to tell a story about that culture,” he said, one that he was a peripheral part of. Esmail said he wanted to include all parts of hacker culture, the positives and the negatives, including the loneliness and drug addiction that plagued some of his friends.
That meant that the first stages of the show's development revolved more around getting the character of Elliot right than about the plot. But Esmail said the real crystallization of Elliot’s character didn't come from his childhood, but rather from the experience of Esmail’s family in Egypt during the Arab Spring civil uprisings of 2011.
Esmail, who is Egyptian-American, said that before the Arab Spring he had the angst and social anxiety part of Elliot’s character down. But when Esmail visited his family right after the Arab Spring, he realized that anger didn’t just have to be a negative emotion. It could also be positive.
He saw his young cousins using technology to actually make a difference in society, and made the distinction between “angst” and “anger” in his mind, something that was critical to charting the evolution of Elliot’s character, and the arc of the entire show.