Pilot Review: HALT AND CATCH FIRE

AMC’s new computer-savvy techno-drama is intriguing, but it needs to quickly outgrow its inspirations and innovate rather than duplicate.

HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF):

An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once.

Control of the computer could not be regained.

–Opening Text

AMC has been stuck in a rut for several years now. After bursting onto the original programming scene with two of the most acclaimed dramas of the last decade, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the network’s track record has been spotty at best. Rubicon and The Killing both fizzled and died early deaths. Hell on Wheels never managed to capture the public’s attention. Neither Turn nor Low Winter Sun has lived up to the praise of their ad campaigns despite continued network assurances of their greatness. By a wide margin, AMC’s biggest post-Men and Bad success has been The Walking Dead, but while the zombie drama continues to be cable television’s most-watched show it isn’t exactly a critical darling (my frustrations with the show are well noted). It’s certainly never going to win an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy like Men and Bad. So, with the Mad Men finale looming on the fall horizon and Breaking Bad’s conclusion already aired, AMC desperately needs a new hit to retain their status as the go-to basic cable network for top-notch dramas.

The new computer drama Halt and Catch Fire gives the network its best shot at a new hit in several years. Set in 1983, Halt covers the early days of personal computing, back when IBM ruled the technological landscape with a seemingly indestructible iron grip. Lee Pace plays Joe McMillan, a cocksure former IBM wunderkind newly employed by the fictional Cardiff Electric company in Texas. When Joe’s first scene involves him running over an armadillo with his flashy sports car, it’s a heavy-handed indication that he’s here to shake up the game. It’s also an indication of what an asshole he’s going to be. Pace plays cocky well, and it’s a testament to his abilities that you both admire Joe and want to punch him in the face in nearly every scene. It’s obvious that Joe views himself as the smartest person in any room regardless of his actual place in the hierarchy. When his perspective boss at Cardiff asks for a résumé, Joe simply presents his W2 from IBM to make the case for his employment. All the while he pushes the reluctant bosses at Cardiff, a software company, to enter the world of computer manufacturing – the main stage of the emerging technological world – with little success.

One of the few worthwhile (in his eyes, anyways) Cardiff employees Joe meets is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a middle-aged family man with his own history in computer development. Gordon once developed his own personal computer, the Symbonic, but the project floundered, leaving Gordon deeply in debt and forced to shelve his dreams for a paycheck at Cardiff. What Joe has in self-confidence, Gordon lacks completely. A shell of his former innovative self, Gordon is happy to stay cowering in his cubicle, out of sight, away from anything that threatens the status quo which provides comfort for his family. When Joe threatens that status quo by suggesting that the two (illegally) reverse engineer an IBM PC, Gordon balks at first citing family responsibilities, but is lured into the project by its difficulty – a testament to his own skills and his faith that the Symbonic was a project worthy of pursuing. After several days working in Gordon’s garage, the two strike gold before ultimately being discovered by Gordon’s disapproving, but loyal wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe). She supports Gordon’s talents but knows the trouble he’d be in if IBM ever found out about the project – which, naturally, they do.

And how does IBM find out about a garage project by two tech nerds? Because the ever-cocky Joe MacMillan called and told them. If Cardiff fires Joe and Gordon, they’re basically admitting to the illegal activity, and IBM has the legal authority to seize and liquidate the company. Cardiff’s only chance is to claim Joe and Gordon’s work as an authentic project and develop their own computer. Annoyed by their lack of PC development, Joe has forced their hand. Like I said, what an asshole. The problem is that Cardiff doesn’t employ anyone with the technological know-how to have legitimately engineered the computer.

Enter Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the short-cropped, camo-wearing, authority-bucking female computer engineer Joe met during a university guest lecture before chasing her around an arcade and having a brief (un)romantic get together with her in a back room. The spunky, defiant Cameron — who claims that everything she’s learning at the university is outdated knowledge — is Cardiff’s only chance to pull off the ruse, and their boss tells them to make sure they have their stories straight as a parade of IBM lawyers and engineers pour into Cardiff to examine the project.

It’s a fun premise, and the setting is an appropriate mirror for our increasingly technologically dependent times. The writing is sharp, and fast – flying back and forth like the best of Aaron Sorkin’s walk and talks mixed with the confident air of one of Don Draper’s best speeches. It’s symbolic of the rapidly changing world our characters inhabit: keep pace or get pushed out of the way. Series premiere writers and show developers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have obviously studied well for their new opportunity. That’s abundantly clear. The question quickly becomes if they’ve studied too well. The similarities to other shows are unmissable, and AMC’s own Mad Men is Halt’s chief source. Cantwell and Rogers have again painstakingly recreated the not-too-distant past, only this time focusing on the 1980s instead of the 1960s. Both shows focus on businesses in emerging fields relative to their time periods, and both feature a swaggering, mysterious protagonist who’s obviously the premiere player in his respective company even if he don’t have the biggest office or paycheck. When Joe’s boss admits that an IBM exec informed him that Joe has been “missing” for nearly a year after leaving IBM, the viewer is left to wonder what, exactly, Joe’s been up to during this unexplained absence, and it recalls the mysterious past of Mad Men’s Don Draper. It’s easy to see Joe MacMillan as a 1980s Don Draper and question whether Cantwell and Rogers did some reverse engineering of their own.

Equally problematic is the Cameron Howe character. Most of her characterization is stereotypical computer rebel. She shows up late to Joe’s guest lecture, dressed in baggy clothes and blasting her headphones. She’s sarcastic towards his advances, chastising him for selling-out to IBM while she slugs the arcade games she’s playing. Sure, she’s the smartest student in Joe’s lecture – one of the few students to check every box on Joe’s laundry list of skills necessary to be a real player in the computer engineering game – and she matches Joe’s “me against the world” attitude. She’s the kind of person to scream at an arcade for being “fascist” for kicking her out, despite the fact that she was paying for her games with a quarter on a string. It’s all a little too simple. What’s driving her? Doesn’t she have any motivations that exist outside of her technological aspirations? So far, no, she doesn’t.

There’s a lot to love about Halt and Catch Fire, and I really enjoyed the series premiere, but that isn’t to say that the show doesn’t have its own set of problems. If Halt is to ever carve out its own place in the pantheon of great shows, it HAS to shake the formula that it seems to be following and succeed on its own merits. No one will remember it if it’s happy to stay a tech-savvy Mad Men clone, but if it cuts its own path it has a chance to be AMC’s next great show. It’s obviously helmed by attentive and capable minds, and the talented cast inspires a lot of hope. There’s a lot of good here. It just needs the right hand steering the ship. I, for one, really hope Halt and Catch Fire finds its way, but it’s too early to know if the show will fizzle out quickly or stick around to burn down the house.

Grade: Promising, but incomplete. 

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