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Halt and Catch Fire, Ep. 1.03, “High Plains Hardware” takes place in Dallas, but does it want to be ‘Dallas’?

HACF 103

Halt and Catch Fire, Season 1, Episode 3: “High Plains Hardware”
Directed by Karyn Kusama
Written by Jason Cahill
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC

Is this show getting silly or is this show getting silly? I’ve been optimistic about Halt and Catch Fire based more on its potential than its first two episodes, which have been pretty inconsistent. It has a fantastic setting and shows a slice of recent history that hasn’t been depicted very often on screen. It features some great music and some good acting. And dramatizing the dawn of the computers is not an easy task. To take a subject this intricate and specialized, a subject few are conversant in even as we use the machines themselves almost constantly, the writers seem to have two choices. They must either commit to exploring the actual process of building a PC, which is a tall order, but if done well could be really rewarding and unlike anything else on television. Or they can use the setting as merely background to tell a story about these characters and their relationships with each other. Unfortunately, they aren’t doing a very good job of either.

Structurally, the show is hitting its beats. It’s moving its main plot forward (the development of Cardiff Electric’s new PC) while slowly doling out information about the characters’ back-stories. This is a technique that has worked well for other serialized shows – The Americans, another 80s set drama, has mastered the formula, which does Halt and Catch Fire no favors in comparison. Of course espionage is inherently more compelling than programming, and Halt and Catch Fire seems afraid to get bogged down in lots of tech-jargon. But this is what the show is about, so the writers need to dive in and figure out how to make it exciting.  Because the characters are not interesting enough on their own terms. And this episode, ‘High Plains Hardware’, relies on cheap plot twists too outlandish for a show that seems to think it’s grounded in the real world.

Exhibit A, obviously, is the “gay” scene. The whole thing is calculated to shock the audience (presumably into furiously tweeting #HaltAndCatchFire #GayKiss while the rest of the world watches Game of Thrones and soccer). It’s just so stupid. I guess Joe could be bisexual. Or he could just be using his sexuality to get what he wants, in this case not wanting a local investor (Jean Smart) to buy into Cardiff. But seriously? He’s going to sleep with her boyfriend while she and his boss and half of Dallas society are in the next room waiting for their brandy. That’s some Days of Our Lives level foolery. Or at least Scandal. And I love Scandal, but Scandal’s tone is heightened and consistent. This move somehow manages to both came out of nowhere and be totally predictable.

Similarly idiotic are Cameron’s hotel shenanigans with the anonymous gutter-punks she meets in the street. If those scenes are meant to show Cameron choosing between her wild past and her buttoned up present, we should have seen her interacting with actual people from her past. But then the writers would have to reveal some of the vagaries of Cameron’s life, for instance why she is homeless. Wasn’t she recently attending college? How did she afford that? Where are her parents? And I guess she could have gotten her genius programming idea from the filthy rectangle tattoo carved into her arm, but writing it down in lipstick on the bathroom mirror is a step too far. Hotels have stationary!

Every act break seems to end on one of these contrived dramatic cliffhangers that don’t jibe with the tone of the show. I know next to nothing about the invention of the PC. (Honestly, I’m not sure what computers in 1983 actually did. Were they just like giant calculators?) But it would be fun to learn about this stuff. That’s why people – very few people, unfortunately for AMC – are watching Halt and Catch Fire. Yeah, sex is fun. Crazy back-stories can be interesting. But when characters take wildly unrealistic actions in order to liven up what is essentially a workplace drama, it means the writers (and the network) don’t trust their own product.

This week’s few bright spots mostly involve Kerry Bishé. The scene with her mother (Annette O’Toole) was fantastic, and a great example of presenting back-story without resorting to histrionics or needless mystery. And the short bit with Donna and Gordon working together in their kitchen was lovely. The show seems poised make Donna a Cardiff employee, which is a good idea. Mackenzie Davis is a beautiful and engaging actress but she rarely gets to interact with the other characters, and introducing Donna to the workplace will at least give Cameron someone to talk to, since she’s legally unable to communicate with Joe and Gordon.

So, maybe things will start falling into place, but each episode seems to confirm the initial suspicion that AMC didn’t release screeners to critics because they knew this show wasn’t very good. And if the writers of Halt and Catch Fire want to write a soap opera, God bless them. We need more good nighttime soaps. But scratch the whole computer thing, give Jean Smart and Annette O’Toole some shoulder pads, and center the whole show around them.

Other thoughts:

Lead characters = no Texas accents. Secondary characters = very thick Texas accents.

Why exactly did Gordon fire his buddy after the car accident?

John Bosworth told Cameron she cannot live at the office, and now he’s living at the office. That’s called dramatic irony.

Do we know exactly what Cardiff Electric did or made before Joe hijacked the company?

Mr. Cardiff seems pretty chill for a dude whose business is falling apart.

“Don’t mean to yuck your yum…” Ugh.

That poor metaphor bird never had a chance.


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