HALT AND CATCH FIRE Review: AMC Hopes That Building a Computer Will Make for High Drama

     May 31, 2014

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With Breaking Bad having wrapped up, and Mad Men only seven episodes away from the conclusion of its run, AMC is surely hoping that Halt and Catch Fire will prove to be its next prestige drama.  It didn’t quite pan out with Rubicon or Low Winter Sun, but then again, those shows didn’t feature Lee Pace.  Halt and Catch Fire is stylish, and takes place in the 1980s, when the computer wars seemed to be over, and IBM was left wearing the crown.  But at the mid-level Cardiff Electric, Pace’s savvy and suave Joe MacMillan looks to make a name for himself by challenging that Goliath (the show is essentially a reworked story of the birth of Compaq).  Hit the jump for why “computers aren’t the thing.  They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

halt-and-catch-fire-lee-paceWith only the pilot to judge it by, Halt and Catch Fire looks promising, but is not a sure bet yet.  There’s a lot for it to play with, narratively, as the setting is one where the tech industry is still in the king-making business, even though it appears to have simmered (something we in hindsight of course know better).  Juan José Campanella‘s direction of the pilot gives the series an edgy and distinctive look, but it also likes to lurk in darkness, much like Low Winter Sun (which can make a viewer very, very sleepy).

Like most pilots, characters here are broadly sketched: Joe MacMillan is a cocky sales guy, who is a rogue in the computing field ever since he left IBM without notice, and disappeared for the better part of a year.  But Joe also knows he can’t achieve greatness on his own, and while in the pilot he proves adept as a leader and schemer, he still needs assurance, and looks worried when the IBM “boogeymen” show up at Cardiff ready to tear him apart through litigation.

Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers‘ pilot script largely functions as a way to assemble Joe’s team, including the down-and-out Gordon Clark (Scooter McNairy), a real slob of a person who has never gotten over the failure of a computer he created with his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), who currently employed at TI.  The two are financially strapped, and Gordon has become a loser at work and a jerk at home, until Joe sparks his interest again by asking him to reverse engineer an IBM computer so that they can improve upon it.  Of course, the tech industry having been built upon stolen ideas, this isn’t much of a problem for either man.  The only issue is that inexplicably its the floundering Gordon who is left footing the bill for the computer.

halt-and-catch-fire-mackenzie-davisAfter his wife confronts him about his extravagant purchase and his lying with, “don’t you realize what you’re risking? What you have now?” Gordon replies with the very Don Draper and Walter White-esque, “it’s not enough, I’m sorry, but it’s not enough.” Gordon does find more focus for his family as the episode wears on, but it’s a turn that happens suddenly (given his neglect of them otherwise), and with the understanding of a wife who is extremely forgiving given the circumstances.  (The hope for Donna is, of course, that she won’t become demonized like Skyler White or Betty Draper, or reduced to a “I’m only here to support you” role, especially given her own talents).

Rounding out the computer-building trio is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a college student computer prodigy, and early predictor of the internet, who Joe pegs (nearly literally) as an invaluable member of their team.  So far though, Cameron is the most broadly considered of the three leads — she shuffles into class late, has a complete contempt for everyone and every thing, and carries a kind of rough-and-tumble street-rat vibe, as she gets thrown out of the arcade for putting a quarter on a string to play infinite rounds.  Still, the idea that the key to Cardiff’s success is a young woman is a nice change of pace.

The real breakout star of Halt and Catch Fire though is Toby Huss, playing Joe’s boss at Cardiff, John Bosworth.  When onscreen (he often just does voice work), Huss always brings a wonderfully strange and engaging atmosphere to this performances, and the version of “Texas justice” that he heaps onto Joe in the form of drawling threats are some of the best moments of the episode. (His reaction line to Cameron asking “what constitutes bullshit?” as “whatever I say it is!” could not have been delivered more perfectly).

halt-and-catch-fire-lee-pace-mackenzie-davis-scoot-mcnairyThe arcade and other tidbits, like Gordon’s daughters’ Speak & Spell, make the show’s 1980s settling relevant without being overwhelming, much like in The Americans on FX.  The setting isn’t cartoonish, it’s just background for a story that is both beholden to that time, but also universal.  There are some parallels, in fact, between Halt and Catch Fire and HBO’s excellent comedy Silicon Valley, which basically picks up the struggle several decades later, where Davids are still fighting Goliaths, and tech giants are still in court suing each other over stolen ideas.

Essentially, there’s no way to know whether Halt and Catch Fire will catch fire or not for AMC.  The fact that they did not make any episodes beyond the pilot available for critics is a suspicious sign, but it also has created a curiosity.  AMC is probably curious, too.  Like Gordon and Joe, who are under enormous pressure to deliver to Cardiff, AMC is under enormous pressure to deliver the next big thing in prestige television.  The only thing left to do is wait and see.

Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday, June 1st at 10pm ET on AMC. 

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