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AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' A Questionable Start-Up
May 31, 2014  | By Ed Bark  | 5 comments

IBM is AMC’s new villain in residence, having loomed forebodingly over this spring’s Mad Men episodes and now looking even more sinister in the network's new Halt and Catch Fire...

Set in circa 1983 Dallas but filmed entirely in Atlanta, the new 10-episode series takes over Mad Men’s Sunday night slot on a network that’s currently stuck in any time but the present. AMC also has been stuck for a new hit of late, with Halt and Catch Fire, for now, looking like a long shot to inflame the ratings -- or even the Internet. First impression based on the only episode made available for review: pretty nicely done, but not yet a killer app.

The title needs some explaining. In fact, AMC hasn’t done that well with titles lately either. Sunday’s preceding Turn (at right), a Revolutionary War era drama about America’s first spy ring, could just as easily be called Halt and Catch Fire (which could just as easily be called Turn). On the other hand, AMC viewers know exactly what to expect with The Walking Dead, which fortunately wasn’t called Staggered Starts.

Here’s the deal, though. As outlined in Halt and Catch Fire’s printed prologue, the title refers to “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.” In other words, no muskets are fired during this tale of personal computers on the rise.

Hoping to make a multi-million dollar breakthrough is Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace of ABC's Pushing Daisies), a very self-assured former IBM employee who’s basically been on the lam since mysteriously disappearing from the company a year ago. MacMillan nominally works for Cardiff Electric but in reality is scheming to invent a new personal computer without the “fatal flaw” of IBM’s supposedly big breakthrough. Initially out of the loop is his blunt-spoken, old-school boss, John Bosworth (Toby Huss), who tells the newcomer, “You’re dog shit around here until you close a deal.”

MacMillan spots a potential software genius in Cardiff engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who’s first seen being bailed out of jail by his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), after another night of too much drinking. She longs for stability and security for their two pre-teen daughters. He yearns to invent The Next Big Thing and in MacMillan’s view has already written a “treasure map” of big things to come.

Their third wheel turns out to be Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a footloose renegade with a bad attitude, a nice body and a lot of computer savvy. This is a major turn-on for MacMillan, who takes her lip before they segue from a bar to a bout of roughhouse sex.

“This doesn’t mean you’ll get the job,” he tells her.

“Wow, you mean we’re not in love?” she snaps back before stalking out.

All of this originates in what’s billed as “Texas’ Silicon Prairie,” where EDS, Tandy, Dell and others were hoping to get the upper hand. But Halt and Catch Fire otherwise presents a fictional group of characters drawn from real-life parallels. One of the series’ co-creators, Chris Cantwell, is a Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas grad whose dad moved the family to Dallas for a job in the computer industry.

The series is no home on the range for drawling galoots in cowboy hats. At least, in Sunday’s opener, it’s not. In fact, there are just a few passing nods to Texas, including a brief visual of a steer.

MacMillan’s machinations eventually lead to a showdown with big bad IBM, which by episode’s end is parading an army of expensive-suited lawyers into the offices of little Cardiff Electric. The series otherwise relies in part on the kindness of chance meetings, particularly when MacMillan and Clark somehow happen to know that Howe is being tossed out of a gaming arcade. They meet her outside the place, where MacMillan seals a deal. Earlier in the episode, he arm-twists Clark after somehow deducing that he and his family have been at a theater seeing Return of the Jedi.

The performances are all capable, with Pace scoring points as the drive shaft with economical lines intended to cut to a chase that’s not all that easily explained.

Clark’s visionary engineering prowess “puts the future squarely in the hands of those who know computers not for what they are but for everything they have the potential to be,” he preaches. And later: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

Not all of the machinations are easily digested, though. Halt and Catch Fire also errs on the side of prototypical, as when Clark’s wife almost magically sees the light and tells him, “Build it. Whatever it is you’re dreaming about, build it. I know you can make it great.”

Right now it’s a construction project. Having just one episode to go on makes it difficult if not impossible to render a firm verdict on Halt and Catch Fire’s staying power. So far it’s promising without being riveting, with the potential to be Facebook -- or Myspace.

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Roy N
This show, if you (me) have a career in Computers since 1980 makes perfect sense. It's not going to attract non-technoids for it's audience but is very realistic. IBM was brutal with it's mainframes strong arming executives.
Jun 3, 2014   |  Reply
The roll out for Halt & Catch Fire started many weeks ago, with AMC trying to position this show as a replacement for Mad Men. So comparisons between the 2 shows are inevitable. The first episode of H&CF had me thinking: Mad Men is like a show made for HBO that... ended up on AMC. Halt & Catch Fire is a show made for AMC that ended up on AMC. It has corny dialog and a boring narrative.
Jun 3, 2014   |  Reply
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