“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.”
That command? It’s Halt And Catch Fire. Television is very much like that. So many shows out there are competing for your attention. Even on the same network there’s often competition for the resources of the studios and the sponsors who provide the paydays. Now AMC has added another original series to compete for your attention…and precious time. You guessed it. Halt And Catch Fire. Does it work? Let’s find out.
Journey back in time to the early 1980’s where the personal computer or PC is just coming of age. IBM is pretty much the only game in town. Sure, there’s a guy named Steve Jobs out there who is also just getting started. But it’s the dominance of old Big Blue that has some thinking about what it is that they really own that is monopolizing the infant industry. The answer? Not much. All of the parts are something called open architecture. That means they’re pretty much a compilation of circuits and chips all owned by various companies. The only thing that makes an IBM an IBM is the information in its BIOS spread out among the many chips in the machine. It’s just a string of numbers. I know, that’s like saying Beethoven’s famous 5th is merely a string of notes. Of course, it’s more than that. But is it enough to be owned by any one company? Today we know the answer. Odds are you’re reading this very review on an IBM-clone machine made by HP or some other company. We take the clone for granted. But someone had to come out of the box first and challenge that king on the hill. Enter Halt And Catch Fire (pun intended).
Joe MacMillan (Pace) is one heck of a salesman. He had it made at IBM where his father was a big shot, but he wants to do something big. He hatches a plan that begins with getting a sales job at Cardiff Electric. But he doesn’t really want to sell their services. Instead he wants to get close to Gordon Clark (McNairy). Clark had written something inspiring in a computer magazine years ago. He and his wife Donna (Bishe) had tried to develop and sell a computer a few years earlier. It ended in a disaster that still haunts their marriage and their lives. Now Gordon’s content to be an invisible engineer working for Cardiff. Joe, it appears, is one heck of a salesman. He is the kind of guy that can suck you right into his dream, and Gordon follows him into an abyss.
That abyss is the idea of creating an IBM clone. Gordon cracks the BIOS code only to have the IBM guys come down on him and the company like a ton of gold bricks. Joe has engineered it all to force Cardiff into funneling all of their resources into the project. Along the way Joe picks up young genius delinquent Cameron Howe (Davis) to work on the new BIOS, which can’t be tainted by Gordon’s recreation of IBM’s. It’s a true David vs. Goliath story.
“Computers aren’t the thing. They are the thing that gets you to the thing.”
The “thing” here is a group of characters. And that’s what this show is truly about. It’s not really about computers and making history. Sure, that’s the background over which all of this plays out. It’s the dynamic of this trio that keeps you coming back episode after episode to see what happens next. The chemistry of this trio is all about power and manipulation. Their dynamic is constantly changing, so you’re never sure exactly what the relationship will be from episode to episode.
After seeing him in The Hobbit trilogy, it’s hard for me to reconcile his performance there and here with the role of Ned on Pushing Daisies. Pace has matured and improved so much as an actor that he is a force to be reckoned with here. The charisma that Joe has to push these characters is evident from Lee Pace himself. It’s one of those steamroller performances that allow you to get so caught up in the character, and more importantly, what the character wants, that you’ll wish you could pitch in and make this computer happen. No question he sits at the throne of these power drives and manipulations.
For Scoot McNairy Gordon is the character that must adapt the most. He also has the added complication of a marriage defiantly on the ropes. That chemistry should be no surprise as McNairy and Kerry Bishe played a husband and wife in the film Argo. It’s a different dynamic here, to be sure. Gordon is a man who finds himself squarely in the middle of it all, and he certainly has the most to lose. His home life is on the line, as is his job.
Not to be lost in the shuffle here is Mackenzie Howe, who plays the young Cameron. Joe meets her in a college class and first has a romantic relationship with her. But with Joe everything he does is about power, manipulation, and thinking several moves ahead. It takes time for Cameron herself to realize it, but by then it’s too late and she is swept up in both a working and romantic relationship. One of the best moments in the film is when she realizes that she loved him because he takes her own thoughts and ideas and speaks them back at her. It’s a skill Joe has quite mastered. She understands that she’s been used and at first doesn’t necessarily mind. But she is passionate herself, and you get the feeling that when she puts it all together she’ll be an equal match for Joe.
There are some pretty solid supporting cast members here as well. Toby Huss plays Boswell, who has been running Cardiff Electric for over 20 years. He has a pretty nice evolution. At first he’s angry that he’s been forced into moving the company resources to developing this computer. He doesn’t like Joe, and he’s had to fire long-time employees with the pressure from IBM. His status quo world has been turned upside down. Try as he might, even he is not immune to Joe’s passion, and it’s a very interesting journey for him to come out the other side and what he’s willing to do to save that dream… one that was once a nightmare for him.
Period pieces can be tricky business. In this case we’re telling a story that happened, in some fashion. But it’s in a completely fictional environment that story is being told. There is a trap to this kind of storytelling. It is written and played out with the hindsight of 2015. That trap usually leads to moments where characters have visions of a future world that happens to be spot-on. Cameron talks about computers being linked with a common protocol all over the world. She too perfectly describes an internet that actually existed, albeit in a different form. You get “innovations” like a computer being portable, and what if it could sit on your lap? For me that’s lazy writing. It’s a cheap way to both make characters look smarter or more innovative than they are and wink at the audience who already knows where that idea is headed. They don’t do it a lot here, and quite frankly there are a lot of cheap shots the series leaves on the table, so I guess I can forgive the occasional can’t-resist chip shot. Otherwise there’s solid writing here that pays off best in the dialog. Credit the actors for developing the rapport that makes it work. Whatever combinations are at play here, there is genius in these interactions.
The production design does a pretty good job of recreating the world of the 1980’s. They stay pretty far away from the political scene. One of the writers mentions in an extra that “EVERYBODY hated the President in 1983.” That’s curious, because in the next year he pulled off the biggest landslide in American history. Obviously, not EVERYBODY hated the man. Just sayin’. It’s interesting to see the up-close look at technology from the era. I’m sure that computer geeks will have a great time looking at all of the retro tech. It looks like most of the time they got it pretty right. Many of us lived through these various incarnations of a computer. I remember paying $500 for a hard drive with what today would be a useless 20 megs of space. Those kinds of realizations remind me that all of this happened in a relatively short amount of time. Either that or I’m getting really old. The point is that there is plenty of nuance for a show that should have wide appeal. Computer geek, video game player, or just a “turn it on and hope it works” kind of viewer, there’s something here to catch and hold your attention.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The high-definition image presentation does a pretty good job of distinguishing between two very distinct worlds here. There’s the warm look of the world outside of the office, particularly the Gordon home. Here the colors are saturated and very warm. There are a lot of browns and orange tones. Not as much detail and sharpness. In the office or almost any time around Joe, colors are cold and gray. Even when Cameron and Joe are having a romantic interlude, it’s not a warm place at all. Contrast is stark, and detail here is brought almost too sharply into focus. It’s a wonderful idea that actually helps to trigger your own feelings. Black levels are solid.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 is there mostly to serve the dialog, but that does not mean there isn’t anything else going on. The show makes use of the music of the era that can often give your surrounds and subs a better workout than expected. That’s a plus if you’re into that sort of sound.
Inside Episodes: There is one for each of the 10 episodes. They run about five minutes each and run pretty much like production diaries. Plenty from the cast and crew with scene-specific behind-the-scenes footage.
Re-Making The 80’s: (3:23) Cast and crew talk about the research and effort to keep the show authentic. From wardrobe to production design, we get a look at those efforts.
Rise Of The Digital Cowboys: (2:57) There was an area around Dallas competing with California’s Silicon Valley. It was known as The Silicon Prairie and usually featured old oil money trying to get in on the computer innovation game. This is where the show is located.
Setting The Fire: (5:47) Here we look at the tech consultants and see how the show attempted to keep the tech aspect as authentic as possible.
The series runs 10 episodes and has to move at a pretty steady clip. We go from the drawing board to the reveal of The Giant in those 10 episodes. In the end we find the characters quite splintered, and I’m curious as to how they will even interact at all in the next season. It’s a nice season finale that left this reviewer wanting more, just not sure it’s going to get there. Like all good technology, television shows should always leave the audience wanting to know “What’s next?”