AMC’s newest and shiniest drama, Halt and Catch Fire, concentrates on the blossoming technological revolution of the early 80’s in which imitation and innovation were unavoidably intertwined. With the market cornered and the reins of the computer boom tightly guarded by IBM’s supreme hands, the basics of technological advancement were rendered off-limits to the unlucky ones who had missed the boat. Halt and Catch Fire‘s protagonists give their best covert attempt at finding a loophole in this scenario in order to illegally decipher IBM’s technology and improve upon it – all behind their employers’ backs and garage doors.
With the network’s crowning jewels – Breaking Bad and Mad Men – defunct and departing, respectively, AMC has been scrambling in recent months to pin down the show that will fill those two gaping holes in television. With a good number of relative flops already under the network’s belt (see Low Winter Sun, Turn, etc.) the question on everyone’s mind is: will this be the one to put them back on track? Intricate comparisons to Breaking Bad and Mad Men are inevitable, understandable, and don’t do H&CF any favors in that they highlight the stale formula that the new drama attempts to follow. It’s tempting to draw countless parallels between the three, but it’s important to examine Halt and Catch Fire in its own right, as well.
Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, we have the show’s three main players neatly laid out for us. There’s Joe MacMillan, former hotshot IBM salesman with nice hair, a nice car, and a big ego to top it off. With the cocksure promise of boosting sales numbers, MacMillan manages to sweet-talk the head of Cardiff Electric into hiring him – but Joe has an ulterior motive.
Gordon Clark is a meek and depressed family man who once had a potentially revolutionary technological breakthrough that ended up falling flat. MacMillan, a fan of Gordon’s former vision, comes to Cardiff Electric with the purpose of secretly convincing him to help pioneer the reverse-engineering of IBM’s technology so as to refine it and take computers to the next level. With children, a wife, and financial strife to worry about, Gordon is extremely reticent at first but ends up agreeing to help MacMillan. The result is a long, ruthless, coffee-fueled spree of ceaseless tinkering that culminates in a potentially huge and definitely illegal discovery by MacMillan and his malleable sidekick.
And then there’s Cameron Howe, a gangly twenty-something young woman with a nauseatingly self-important sense of rebelliousness and faux individuality. She ends up being the final, reluctant key to MacMillan’s scheme. Despite her extensive experience with technology and well-formed ideas about the computer industry, she spends her days repairing VCR’s and playing arcade games.
The pilot’s most glaring flaw is in its characters. Each one fits into an easy template that’s been seen countless times before in too many films and television shows. We have the wannabe Don Draper who falls short of his own ego, the washed up underdog genius who’s plucked from his milquetoast cubicle job to fulfill his destiny, the pseudo-self aware punk who is ferociously alternative and won’t let you forget it…we’ve met them so many times before.
The cast does well with the “been there” hands they’ve been dealt, but it’s difficult to get past the clichés that are apparent from the outset. Much of the script feels like a patchwork quilt of every hackneyed sarcastic quip that’s ever been in a film, and the inter-character relationships are uninspired and predictable.
It’s safe to say that much of Halt and Catch Fire has gotten off to a shaky start, but the show’s plot trajectory has a lot of promise if the script cuts down on clichés and gets moving a little faster. The retrospective aspect is apparent but not too loud, and the concept is very solid.
What do you think? Does H&CF have staying power? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Photo Credit: AMC