'Mr. Robot' version 3.0 returns to feverish form

Rami Malek in 'Mr. Robot'

(CNN)"Mr. Robot" was a comet, blazing brightly in its riveting first season at the risk of crashing and burning in its second. While that flame is unlikely to be fully rekindled, version 3.0 marks a welcome return to form, one that tightens the story but still seems disarmingly weird and appropriately suited to the current political and cultural moment.

Poor Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, a season-one Emmy winner overlooked in season two) is still caught up in forces largely beyond his control, including his alter ego Mr. Robot, played with innate menace by Christian Slater. Yet Elliot's attempt to essentially reclaim his narrative and set right the wrong he's done with his hacking ways creates a structural spine that last season frequently lacked.
Elliot remains obsessed with Evil Corp, the massive conglomerate he was determined to bring down. But others harbor their own shadowy motives and angles, from simple revenge to the more elaborate machinations of Whiterose (B.D. Wong), who ominously speaks of carrying out "Stage 2" of a plan to undermine the company, and potentially crash the U.S. economic system along with it.
The first episodes move briskly -- again, not a description that always applied to the previous flight -- adding Bobby Cannavale as a terrific new character with a Gumby hairdo. The pace slows a bit thereafter (six episodes were previewed), while incorporating a few twists almost as surprising as the show's season-one reveal.
Perhaps foremost, "Mr. Robot" again features writer-director Sam Esmail's feverish tone, fun-house mirror on society and jaundiced view of capitalism, while provocatively referencing current events. In his narration, Elliot notes that the establishment has "turned our dissent into intellectual property" and prodded us to "buy in on our worst selves." (In a few scenes, he's forced to wear a borrowed "Property of Josh Groban" T-shirt, which only adds to the wry wit of it all.)
"Mr. Robot" was never a huge hit ratings-wise, but it almost instantly elevated USA into a premium programming tier that the network has seldom occupied. Part of that has to do with centering on an unreliable protagonist who keeps the viewer constantly off guard, an unpredictability that can be alternately bracing and confounding.
The show's casual paranoia and disdain for authority -- jarring enough when it made its debut -- also feel even more pointed and timely now, during the Trump presidency, in the way '70s thrillers suddenly feel more relevant. Deep State, meet the Dark Army.
In that context, the reloaded third season not only puts "Mr. Robot" back on that track, but appears to include a few guard rails to keep it from tumbling off. And even with its occasional glitches, that's enough motivation, for now, to buy back in.
"Mr. Robot" premieres Oct. 11 at 10 p.m. on USA.