Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Lee Pace

A handsome, carefully crafted machine, Halt And Catch Fire looks good coming out of the box. Set in 1983 Texas, the show has an unobtrusive period feel—the fashions feel right, and the decade-appropriate details are present but not overdone. In this first episode, the corporate offices of Cardiff Electric, a mid-level computer company content in its secure inferiority to industry giant IBM, is just the sort of placid, unadventurous corporate setting for a brilliant but cowed computer programmer/family man like Gordon Clark to drone away his once-lofty dreams of Steve Jobs superstardom and wealth.

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At least until Joe MacMillan blows into town in his Porsche, steals Gordon’s parking space, teases Gordon with his former ambition (in the form of a visionary article he once wrote for Byte), and seduces the downtrodden Gordon into reverse engineering one of those ubiquitous and lucrative IBM personal computers with him in order to—well, that’s the rub, isn’t it? Who is this Joe MacMillan, and what sort of game is he playing?

In Todd VanDerWerff’s TV Review of the premiere ,“I/O” (the only episode AMC is letting critics see), he made the point that Halt And Catch Fire is made up of a lot of familiar components. Scoot McNairy’s Gordon is the former dreamer uneasily setting aside his ambitions under the pressures of fatherhood and husband-hood. His wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) loves him but is losing patience with his restlessness, wishing he’d forget that time the two of them almost started their own computer company and that he’d fix the kids’ damn Speak & Spell already. And then there’s Joe, the smooth-faced, smoother-talking mystery man with the impeccable suits and perfect hair and the seeming ability to make men and women do exactly what he wants—and what he wants is something only he (and the show) knows. And he’ll reveal it when he’s good and ready.

It’s in the inevitable revelation of Joe’s endgame that Halt And Catch Fire is going to live or die, as his lightning fast machinations in this first episode are the only engine the show has. McNairy’s Gordon, receding behind his mousy beard and short sleeved work shirts, has some colors in the pilot—you can feel the character’s self worth wax when his technical expertise briefly makes him the dominant partner while disassembling the IBM—but he, like everyone else, is a reactive element in the story Joe’s writing. Like another AMC show I promised myself I wouldn’t compare Halt And Catch Fire to, there’s nothing especially compelling about the corporate world in which the main character operates in itself. Here, the 1980s computer industry (like the 1960s industry involving the advertising of goods and services on that other show) is merely the battleground upon which a brilliant, charismatic protagonist with a troubled past only hinted at will prove his worth to himself and to those shadowy past figures he’s ever haunted by. The degree to which the drama therein is going to succeed will rely on Lee Pace’s place at the center of all this, and his performance—indeed, his casting—assures things are at least going to stay interesting.

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I’ve always found Pace to be a vaguely unsettling presence, his blank affect and angular features reminiscent of someone manufactured into existence for the role at hand. That’s why he’s fit so well into the stylized TV universes of Bryan Fuller, the even more stylized cinematic world of Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, and why he makes a damned fine elf king. Here, too, in his crisp, Patrick Bateman ’80s suits and haircut (you just know he has a Bateman-esque defoliating ritual), Pace’s Joe orchestrates every relevant bit of plot in the pilot like a criminal mastermind, laying infallible snares for everyone around him. When those snares go off, it is, as another current Bryan Fuller TV mastermind might say, “by his design.”

So when Gordon agrees to lie to his wife and help Joe, and when the pretty, punky computer student Cameron (a winningly no-bullshit MacKenzie Davis) becomes the guys’ third accomplice, and when Toby Huss’ blustering Cardiff exec is forced to allow their project to continue because Joe called IBM to force the company’s hand—it is all by Joe’s design. It’s fun watching Pace glide through all these machinations—it’s like every one of his speeches was designed to outdo Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross—and Pace is magnetic as always doing so. But, like Joe’s plan, the first episode of Halt And Catch Fire is too calculated to allow much room for air. As the introductory crawl explains the title: “halt and catch fire” was “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.” Gee, that’s sort of like what Joe does.

Halt And Catch Fire allows some cracks to show in Joe’s demeanor, but they, like much of the show, are deployed as if according to, well, a program. (File labeled: “prestige cable drama.”) When Joe, seemingly thwarted by Gordon’s initial refusal, digs out a baseball bat emblazoned with the motto “Swing for the fences, son” and starts smacking line drives into the walls and windows of his spacious, empty apartment, we’re meant to respond to the storytelling shorthand. There are enough spaces around the main characters that can still be filled in (Davis’ smudged humor is deployed to good effect), but, again like Joe’s master plan, there’s a lot of evident planning going on.

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It seems paradoxical, ungrateful even, to call Halt And Catch Fire out for being too assured in a TV landscape of ramshackle, clichéd nonsense. There’s a lot of promise here, and a few unique and welcome surprises. As thankless a role as Bishé is stuck with (at least in this one episode), it’s gratifying how quickly Donna and Gordon come to their understanding about him pursuing his dreams again. As the lone other female of the story, Davis is a welcome rogue element amidst all Joe’s control, and her outsider status as the only woman in her field of study makes narrative sense since Joe and Gordon have to find someone off the radar. Toby Huss remains an unheralded character-actor secret weapon—his understandable late-episode threat to find out just what Joe’s hiding marks him as a worthy adversary. And as hackneyed as his family story might be, McNairy looks to have some interesting moves of his own to play as Gordon continues to be drawn out of hiding. The show looks good, with a muted, shadowy palette that sets off every glowing electronic device with an evocative, neon nimbus.

And it’s got Pace who, as programmatic as his character might appear, provides Halt And Catch Fire with a compellingly enigmatic center to build around. When, in the last scene (scored to Bonobo’s eerie, edgy “Cirrus”), Gordon asks Joe “What are you trying to prove with all of this?” as a seemingly endless parade of IBM lawyers file into the lowly Cardiff offices, Pace’s wordless reaction does a lot of work toward keeping the stakes palpable.

Stray observations:

  • Of course, the technical and business aspects of the computer industry of the 1980s will be more interesting to some than others (me).
  • Please note that there will be a dearth of computer-related metaphors in these reviews, as I don’t know anything about computers. Writing this on my shiny Mac laptop, where everything is easy buttons and a nice, friendly hum.
  • Speaking of metaphors—in the opening scene, Joe is driving his Porsche too fast and embeds a trundling armadillo in the grill. See, Joe is fast and maybe a little reckless. And, hey, Gordon is a little like that armadillo—slow and willing to curl up into a tight ball in response to danger. And they collided! Metaphors are fun.
  • That’s little Maggie Elizabeth Jones as one of Gordon and Donna’s daughters, as adorable as she was on Ben And Kate. (I may have just wanted to mention Ben And Kate.)
  • Like on The Americans, the show’s setting allows for some welcome 1980’s soundtrack deep cuts. While it’s always nice to hear The Clash, The Vandals “Wanna Be Manor” and XTC’s “Complicated Game” were particularly welcome. Keep it up, Halt And Catch Fire.
  • The plot requires a lot of technobabble, which the actors handle as well as possible. For some (me), such explanations are necessary, I suppose, but since everyone on the show is a computer expert, finding excuses to dumb everything down for the audience may prove difficult. (Maybe a clueless intern character. I’d name him Chip.)
  • While remaining guardedly optimistic about the show, I do recall that the last time a new AMC drama and I paired up, it didn’t go so well. Fingers crossed.

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