Last summer, AMC tried to launch a new show in the hour after Breaking Bad, hoping that the millions of viewers watching and tweeting about Walter White would keep tuning in. But Low Winter Sun was a bonafide flop, a critical and ratings fiasco, and the name itself became a sort of punchline to certain snotty TV viewers. Rather than helping launch the new show, its proximity to Breaking Bad only magnified Low Winter Sun’s shortcomings. It became the poster child for poor quality “quality” television, the skeleton of a dark cable drama with none of the skill or soul needed to sustain itself. The network is taking a different tactic with its new drama, Halt and Catch Fire. By debuting in Mad Men’s timeslot after the veteran show wraps up its truncated demi-season, the newbie can live or die on its own merits rather than force comparisons to one of the greatest shows of all time. That being said, the fact that this is a period piece and a workplace drama is no accident, and Halt and Catch Fire’s superficial similarities to Mad Men might entice viewers who are hungry for more Don Draper but resigned to the fact that they won’t get him for another year.
Halt and Catch Fire takes place outside of Dallas in the early 1980s and centers on rogue former IBM executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). He gets himself hired by Cardiff Electric, a small tech company, and convinces one of their engineers, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), to help him reverse engineer an IBM computer in order to be able to compete with “Big Blue” in the emerging PC market. Because of the murky legality of the plan—all the talk about open source software had my head spinning a bit—they have to hire a new programmer, the Lisbeth Salander-like Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) who can convince IBM (and a federal judge if need be) that Cardiff has been developing a PC all along. The mechanics of the premise are as clunky as they are in most pilots, but there are enough interesting beats to keep viewers interested, if not exactly surprised.
In his first moments onscreen, Joe runs over a doddering armadillo in his speeding Porsche, a gesture not unlike Frank Underwood’s dog execution introduction in the House of Cards pilot. Minutes later we see Gordon in his car (definitely not a Porsche), hung over and eating a donut he picked up off the street. These are broad character beats, but they’re not ineffective. Less successful is a sex scene that seems thrown in because, hey, it’s cable and why not throw in a sex scene. And the first several interactions between Gordon and his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) are groaningly familiar, a nagging woman wanting her supposedly extraordinary husband to stop being great and start helping out around the house.
Joe seems to care about nothing but his own success, scamming Gordon and his new employers at Cardiff Electric. He veers a little too much into Patrick Bateman territory, and we can’t root for a psychopath right from the get go. It took Tony Soprano and Walter White whole seasons before they revealed themselves as monsters.
Encouragingly, the last twenty minutes of the episode do a lot to redeem the familiar beats established in the first couple of acts. We find out Donna isn’t just a frustrated housewife, she’s also a talented software engineer who’s been down this road before with her obsessive husband. And when Joe and Gordon are actually taking that computer apart in the garage, Pace’s face reveals that behind the macho bluster, Joe’s a guy who really believes in what he’s doing. Cameron, the punk rock programmer genius, is unfortunately the least developed of the main characters, but much of that has to do with her relative lack of screen-time and Davis is a charismatic enough actress to make an impression.
Of course the viewers know that Joe, Gordon, and Cameron are on the right side of history, that personal computers, followed by the Internet (which is obliquely referenced by Cameron), are the future and that IBM will soon lose its standing in the tech world. But similarly to the follies of Chevy and Lucky Strike and Burger Chef on Mad Men, just because we know what will happen doesn’t make the hows and whys any less interesting.
I promise not to continue to compare this show to Mad Men every week. I’m just a little sad Mad Men’s over, ok?
Toby Huss steals all his scenes as the Cardiff Electric executive who hires Joe and is then tricked into keeping him on, but I could do with a bit less Yosemite Sam, “Here in TEXAS, we do things THIS way” nonsense.
I’m relieved that Donna is onboard with Gordon’s project by the end of the episode, if only so online idiots won’t be able to give her the Skyler White treatment, but her sudden reversal seems a little unearned.
It’s the eighties. On cable. Where’s the COCAINE???
As someone born in the early eighties, I can speak to the fact that Speak & Spells are indeed the greatest technological invention of the twentieth century. I would watch a whole show about the development of the Speak & Spell.
FX’s The Americans is killing it when it comes to weaving in a great ‘80s soundtrack. C’mon AMC, did you blow your whole music budget on “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”?