Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"Halt and Catch Fire" Pilot Review

“Halt and Catch Fire” is proof that no matter how many things a TV show has going against it, all I need to give it a chance is a premise that speaks to my niche interests. Sure it’s another desperate attempt by AMC to finally have another show that’s actually good once “Mad Men” joins “Breaking Bad” in the great channel in the sky. Sure the main character is just another hyper competent, amoral, successful, white male anti-hero. And sure the title is basically for no one. But how can I not watch a series about the early 1980s PC boom? I was willing to tolerate the TV movie cheesiness of Pirates of Silicon Valley so of course I’m going to watch this.

After seeing the first episode “I/O” though, I think I’d be pretty jazzed even if I wasn’t a tech writer. Part of that comes from the tremendous sense of place. Texas makes sense as a setting because of all the tech companies with roots there. One character even works for Texas Instruments. But it’s also a fascinating reminder of how much the traditional macho Texas lone star culture held sway over the early tech culture in ways we can probably trace up to today’s awful tech bros. It was never just California hippies.

Meanwhile, the 80s time period covers not only the surface level details like music and fashion, but also the general attitude of pure greed and intense self-interest. This is where Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan begins to part from the likes of Don Draper and Walter White. In this first episode at least, his obviously constructed salesman persona is less about covering up past traumas or insecurities and more about concealing straight up sociopathy. His role in the show is to play hotheaded but charismatic Steve Jobs to Scoot McNairy’s Steve Wozniak stand-in Gordon Clark, a bearded, sad sack, computer genius and alcoholic father. But in practice Pace ends up coming off as a cross between Gordon Gecko and Patrick Bateman. He stalks Gordon’s family at a movie theater for crying out loud. Pace’s performance is the highlight of the pilot so here’s hoping it isn’t undermined by some needlessly convoluted mystery about what happened during the year MacMillan went missing. Maybe he stole someone’s name in a war?

Conversely, Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe gets the short shrift. I like the choice to make the show’s female lead the young computer science prodigy who sees the internet coming, but she just has too little to do for too much of the episode. Her punk arcade antics are fun, and it’s amusing, if unnecessary, that her knowledge of programming not only impresses MacMillan but sexually arouses him. But the only thing she really does is join the team, establishing her place for future episodes.

Fortunately, the rest of episode does more beyond simple table-setting. The actual mechanics of MacMillan scheme to take down IBM and seize control/ctrl, all while being openly hated by a corporation he tricked into hiring him, are enjoyable to watch in a sneaky caper film kind of way. Meanwhile, the sections devoted to the Clarks’ strained family life transcend the typical domestic drama tropes they could have easily devolved into. As more of the couple’s previous history with computers is revealed, their actions and relationships begin to make sense in a compelling, believable way. There’s even a cute bit where Gordon repairs and upgrades his daughter’s spelling toy demonstrating the variety of ways computers have value to people. Currently, with Howe as a nonentity and MacMillan as a nonhuman, much of the human drama comes from Gordon and his wife Donna played by Kerry Bishé. Luckily, they deliver.

Taken as a whole, the dark campy melodrama of “House of Cards” and the mundane comic insanity of “Veep” basically represent all politics can be. I’m hoping that together, “Halt and Catch Fire” and HBO’s great new sitcom “Silicon Valley” can do the same thing for the ever-expanding and increasingly villainous tech scene. It’s no “Mad Men” or The Social Network, but this first episode shows enough promise to warrant another download.

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