Review: Halt and Catch Fire Pilot

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An encouraging start for the 80s computing drama

B+

“HALT AND CATCH FIRE (HCF):

An early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the machine could not be regained._”

So opens AMC’s latest drama, a fictionalised account of the personal computing revolution told from ground zero. The metaphor is clear and for the non initiated in programming, it’s a welcome piece of essential knowledge in order to understand just what type of show this is. The immediately following opening scene drives home the point with a hammer, as Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) runs over an armadillo in his luxurious sports car. In the world of Halt and Catch Fire, you either crush or get crushed.

It’s a rock solid pilot and given the pedigree behind it (talents from Southland, Breaking Bad, and Rectify are all at play here) perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Yet pilots aren’t easy though and in particular require the balance between small character building moments and forward plot momentum to be just right. Halt and Catch Fire succeeds here and in doing so lays the groundwork for what could very well be a compelling journey through the eighties, a period of time that would go on to fundamentally change how people connect and share information.

Gordon Clarke (Scoot McNairy) is a disillusioned, depressed and underachieving engineer, his ambitions crippled by a loss of confidence from a failed passion project years ago. He’s a meek, spineless individual and the contrast with Pace’s confidence to the point of arrogant MacMillan is staggering.

Only someone with MacMillan’s spark can reinstate his passions of the past as the two go about reverse engineering IBM’s processing brainchild, causing a massive legal kerfuffle but one that lets the two pursue the project albeit much to the irritation of their superiors. Toby Huss’ performance as the bitter senior VP of sales tasked with cleaning up their mess is positively electrifying.

If Clarke’s earlier scenes in the episode are frustrating to watch because of his complete apathy and lack of motivation to assert himself in both his family and professional life, it makes the eventual victory and challenge set up by the pilot’s end all the more satisfying.

HCF2

Rounding out the core trio of the cast is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a rebellious computer science college student with a sharp tongue who wants to do something more important with computers than just finding faster ways for them to balance accounts. She gets extra cool points for utilising classic ‘quarter on a string’ in order to get unlimited replays at the local arcade, leading to a brief but appreciated Centipede montage.

Davis embodies the role well but the character unfortunately gets the short end of the stick and undergoes the least amount of fleshing out. Were there more of her present in the episode, she’d surely take home the MVP award. Based on both screen time and performance though this definitely goes to Lee Pace. This isn’t to criticise McNairy’s performance who, along with his Kerry Bishé as Gordon’s wife, is also very good. It’s a strong and very well-rounded cast and even though the team is formed late in the episode and have relatively few interactions as a group, the chemistry between the three absolutely seems to be there.

The opening title sequence is appropriately matched, with distinctly eighties swirling synths accompanying a cyberspace interpretation of the creative process, as glitchy unclear ideas turn into something physical and real. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the match between content and style works so well but considering the woeful opening sequence of AMC’s other freshman drama Turn earlier this year (which in fairness has bigger problems than an unfortunate opening)  nothing can really be taken for granted.

The excellent opening credits, featuring a reworked version of Trentemøller’s ‘Still on Fire’

Hopefully the show takes full advantage of its period, an era currently thick with retroactively attained nostalgia by those who never even grew up in it. Doing so without it coming across as awkward and forced might prove difficult but the pilot does a good job of reminding viewers of the when and where without overstating the fact; the previously mentioned Centipede sequence, effective musical choices and a cinema trip to see Return of the Jedi the most noticeable signifiers of the period.

There’s a slight worry that with Halt and Catch Fire AMC are attempting to push another prestige drama off an assembly line rather than simply trying to make good TV. There are more than a few parallels between the show and Mad Men, the two most prominent being that both are period dramas set in the workspace and both feature white alpha male antiheroes with mysterious pasts. If it’s deliberately worked off of this formula than it needs to ape it well or the show might just end up an unintentional parody.

AMC have been swinging and missing for several years now. With Mad Men and Breaking Bad, it seemed as though the network would pose a serious threat to HBO’s long and rightfully held reign on the throne but their path has been a far from clear one. The excellent Rubicon was axed after a mere single season as a result of low ratings while Hell on Wheels has been a modest but uninspired success.

The Killing frustrated and enraged for two years before being sent to die itself although thankfully Netflix saved the day here, resulting in a shockingly good third season and guaranteeing closure with a fourth later this summer. Low Winter Sun was a disaster and a clear demonstration that the anti-hero mould in its current incarnation has reached saturation point.

Of course there’s The Walking Dead, an inconsistent but unprecedented cable success but that still leaves only Mad Men to pick up the critical slack and even that will be gone by this time next year. Like Showtime, AMC need to find their next potential awards prospect and that just might be Halt and Catch Fire.

Based on the strength of the pilot, Halt and Catch Fire’s big concern hopefully won’t be in maintaining its quality but rather finding a big enough audience to avoid AMC’s chopping board. Based on the massively lacklustre premiere ratings, such a feat is looking disappointingly improbable.


Halt and Catch Fire airs Sunday nights on AMC in the US.

 

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