“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” So says a character in AMC’s new series ‘Halt and Catch Fire’, a drama about computer programmers set during the PC revolution of the early 1980s. That line of dialogue may be the clearest and least cryptic thing in the entire premiere episode.
I like to consider myself a fairly savvy viewer. It’s rare that I watch a TV show and have little idea what’s happening in the plot. ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (even the show’s title is a reference to obscure computer jargon that few in the audience will recognize) dives deep into its world without offering much concession to viewers unfamiliar with the techie lingo. On the one hand, I find it kind of refreshing to watch a TV series that doesn’t dumb down its dialogue or pander to viewers. On the other hand, the show is almost deliberately alienating to all but the tiniest of niche audiences.
The year is 1983 (as we learn when characters go to see ‘Return of the Jedi’ in the theater). Lee Pace from ‘Pushing Daisies’ stars as Joseph MacMillan, a very smug, smooth-talking executive who walked away from a high-paying job at IBM under mysterious circumstances and connived his way into a senior role at a much smaller electronics firm called Cardiff Electric. Cardiff is a bit player and the owners have no intention or desire to compete with a powerhouse like IBM. MacMillan, however, is ambitious and considers himself a visionary. He wants to build a new computer that will revolutionize the industry and break open the home market in ways that the overly-cautious suits at IBM would never let him attempt.
To do that, he recruits Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy – yeah, that’s his name), a sad-sack programmer who once had innovative ideas about open architecture but has been browbeaten into submission by the failure of a passion project and a henpecking wife (Kerry Bishé from ‘Scrubs’). Clark goes to work every morning, slogs through a boring routine, and clocks out at the end of the day. That’s the life he has resigned himself to, but he craves more.
Through repeated badgering, Joe convinces Gordon to help him illegally reverse-engineer an IBM PC’s BIOS chip. Joe then intentionally leaks this information back to IBM, so that the big firm will threaten a lawsuit, thus pressuring Cardiff to legitimize the project as an intended entrance to the home computing market. Then MacMillan brings in his secret weapon, a smart-aleck punk hacker chick named Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) whose thinking is so far outside the box that nobody else even knows where the box is.
At least, that’s what I got out of the pilot episode. As I said, it’s a little difficult to follow.
In its favor, the show has an intriguing setting and tells the story in the style of a 1970s conspiracy thriller – all hushed tones and backdoor dealings. The performances are quite proficient. However, the characters themselves aren’t all that compelling so far, and the punk hacker girl is a very tired cliché. (If the producers want to present a real 1980s computer nerd, they should bring in someone who looks like a young Bill Gates.) I’m also not yet convinced that the story has enough meat on its bones to hook me.
The recently-ended season of FX’s spy drama ‘The Americans’ had a similar storyline about the development of the ARPANET that was a lot more accessible and entertaining than anything in this series premiere.
I want to give ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ another shot, because I feel that there’s something interesting buried in it, but I’m really on the fence at the point.