Is It Good? Halt and Catch Fire

By: Daniel Reynolds

With so many new TV shows, movies, books and music coming out these days, sometimes staying culturally literate can be exhausting. To help sift through it all, we here at the Same Page will periodically take a look at some new bit of culture and ask the most important question: Is It Good?

What Is It?

Looking to fill its schedule heading into the spring, AMC invested in two new shows: Turn, a period drama set during the American Revolution and Halt and Catch Fire, an early 80s look at the computer revolution. While I’m sure Turn has elements that make it commendable, I was immediately intrigued by Halt and Catch Fire‘s premise.

halt and catch fire

As explained by an opening title card, “halt and catch fire” is known as a set of computer instructions that cause it to eventually, powerfully, crash (sometimes by actually burning up). Set in 1983, the show introduces us to Joe McMillan (played by Lee Pace, a next generation Don Draper or at least, a slightly friendlier Patrick Bateman) as he races to a job interview – during which he runs over a slow-moving armadillo; symbolism alert! – with Cardiff Electric. It’s the dawn of a new age of electronics with IBM bringing computers to the masses, the VCR blowing up, and video game fever still running high. McMillan has a plan to get into the market. All he needs are some middling company’s resources and a couple of outsiders to bring his vision of personal computing to life.

Those outsiders come in two wildly different forms. First is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, apparently omnipresent these days), a frustrated hardware engineer and family man who sees computers not as the next big thing but, as he puts it, the thing that gets us to the next big thing. Second is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, a Canadian actress bound for some kind of stardom), a punk rocking, trouble making, devil may care programmer. With his team in place, McMillan makes his move at Cardiff and begins to reverse engineer an IBM computer. Back in 1983, this was a corporate death sentence.

After a couple of episodes, the high-tech stakes are in place. McMillan runs afoul of his boss at Cardiff, raging Texan and senior VP John Bosworth (Toby Huss, a.k.a The Wiz) and then, as expected, draws the ire of IBM. But, of course, the problems don’t stop there. McMillan has his hands full motivating Clark, who must weigh his computer dreams with the reality of caring for his wife (Kerry Bishé, struggling mightily against being underwritten) and young children, while also supervising Howe, who really is hoping to prove she’s the best programmer around (while also, you know, avoiding jail). But all that is side stepping the central conceit of the show: it turns out that Joe McMillan is not everything he says he is. He’s a salesman, sure, that’s clear after he makes a few soul stirring pitches. But, he’s also got some – and forgive me for tilting into vague cliché – inner demons.

Now I ask, is that enough to hang a show on?

Why Should You Care?

Ever since AMC got into the prestige cable game they’ve been on the clock. What started with two absolute home runs (the culturally timeless Mad Men, and the painfully successful Breaking Bad), quickly grounded out with shows that engendered indifference at best (Rubicon, Hell on Wheels) to out right anger at worst (The Killing, Low Winter Sun).

Fortunately, AMC managed to strike gold with the most unlikely of properties: The Walking Dead. And while, for me, it’s a show that has long outlived (at least twice) its reason for existing, it is a runaway monster hit that helps keep the channel afloat. So, kudos, guys. But it’d still be nice if AMC didn’t perpetually appear to be one zombie apocalypse away from failure.

Enter Halt and Catch Fire.

The bottom line is this: while I’m not saying Halt and Catch Fire is destined to be the next cultural monument in the endless restructuring game that is the television industry, it would be nice if AMC could find itself another hit show. Why? To put it simply, because Mad Men and Breaking Bad are really awesome and while AMC may have bungled the ending of both shows (these little half season runs are dumb), it’s a corporate decision partially driven by the economics of the situation.

Since they’ve committed to high quality (i.e. expensive) cable programming, AMC has found itself in need of greater income to sustain itself. With only three shows in the outright success column, it becomes harder to maintain any sort of quality, let alone the meagre returns AMC is currently showing. Only a network strapped for cash would commission so many cheesy low-cost reality shows while also milking and drawing out its money-making shows so blatantly. So, if shows like Halt and Catch Fire (and yeah, sure, Turn as well) fail, it means the chances of AMC remaining as a viable outlet for quality programming tick just slightly closer to a crash state. And the chances we ever see another Mad Men or Breaking Bad shrink just a little bit more.

Halt and Catch Fire characters

Is It Good?

Three episodes in and the jury remains out. On the one hand, I think the setting and subject matter really are worth learning more about. The early computer age, what with its fascinating corporate intrigue, its coterie of rogue characters, and its “shape the future” stakes, offers more than enough potential for drama. On the other hand though, this is yet another show where the central figure is a mysterious white guy with undisclosed – but generously mined – personal issues. So far I’m willing to look past some of the more obvious misdirection to enjoy the high-tech subterfuge, interoffice dynamics, and glance into recent history. In addition, the show has a great look (and a tremendous title sequence, if one cares about such things) and takes advantage of its period setting (80s punk music!) and subject matter (2000s ambient electronica!) to great effect.

The Verdict: I’m going to ride with this show for the season. My recommendation is that you should too if you’re into computers, the 80s, and/or mysterious protagonists.

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