‘Halt and Catch Fire’ and AMC’s Push to Reset Dramas

While ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ is a promising pilot for the network, how many montages of pasty engineers poking at circuit boards can a show uncork before becoming a bore?

James Minchin III/AMC

AMC is in trouble.

OK, not trouble trouble. Not we’re-in-imminent-danger-of-vanishing-from-TV trouble. But consider where the network finds itself right now. Breaking Bad—one of the greatest television dramas of all time, with a finale that attracted 10.3 million viewers—is kaput. Flagship series Mad Men just finished the first half of its final season. And ratings cow The Walking Dead can’t go on forever, no matter how feverishly AMC executives insist that, actually, it can.

In short, AMC needs another hit. To keep critics buzzing, and audiences interested, and advertisers advertising. To avoid becoming The Zombie Channel. To prove they’ve still got it—that Walter White and Don Draper weren’t flukes.

And so how has the network responded? By giving us a new show about…well, building a computer.

On Sunday, Halt and Catch Fire will premiere on AMC. It’s easily the channel’s most promising next-generation series so far: the fictional-but-truthy story of a renegade IBM defector who relocates to Texas’s Silicon Prairie circa 1983 and promptly tricks a regional tech company into cloning his old company’s PCs. The problem is that the competition isn’t particularly steep. Rubicon was glacial. Low Winter Sun was rote. The Killing was a pale shadow of its Scandinavian source material. And Turn looks and feels like some sort of soft-focus dramatic-reenactment segment from a PBS documentary about Aaron Burr.

There’s another problem, too: “promising” is all that Halt and Catch Fire can be, at least for the moment. That’s because AMC hasn’t let critics see past the pilot episode. As The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum recently noted, “TV is not movies.” When a movie is done, it’s done. That’s it. But television is episodic. Over time, characters develop. Plots thicken. Themes emerge. That’s when a show really swims (or sinks). It’s hard enough to judge a new series after watching the four or five episodes that networks usually send out in advance. It’s impossible to judge a new series after watching one episode—especially if it’s a pilot. All you can really judge, at that point, is the pilot itself.

So how is the Halt and Catch Fire pilot? Surprisingly good in some ways—and fairly typical in others.

On the plus side, rookie creators (and ex-Disney marketers) Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers have conjured up a world that’s teeming with the kind of conflict and characters that good dramas tend to thrive on. At the start of the episode, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies) and Cameron Howe (relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis) meet in a Texas college classroom. He’s a besuited, Porsche-driving IBMer from back east who’s quizzing a bunch of hapless computer-science students about the future of PCs; she’s the slouchy blond punk who also happens to be the only one in the auditorium who knows what she’s talking about. Pretty soon they’re taking shots at a local dive bar. He asks what she wants to do with her life. She jokes about working for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, then admits that actually, she thinks “computers could be more—and should be.” They look at each other meaningfully—and repair to the boiler room for some torrid sex.

If the scene had ended there, I might’ve dismissed Halt and Catch Fire out of hand. Thankfully, it didn’t. Instead, MacMillan has the temerity to issue a caveat mid-thrust. “This doesn’t mean you get the job,” he growls. Howe pulls away. “Wow,” she snaps. “You mean we’re not in love?” Then she shoves MacMillan in the chest and exits stage left. What could have been yet another instance of cheap cable carnality—the irresistible male antihero! the sarcastic but ultimately submissive chick!—actually becomes a telling little character study. For him, everything is transactional. She’s greener. She’s also less full of shit.

Like all pilots, the majority of the episode is devoted to setup. MacMillan sweet-talks his way into a sales job at Cardiff Electric, where he convinces reluctant engineer Gordon Clark—a frustrated dreamer who’s been drowning his sorrows and neglecting his family ever since his pet project, Symphonic, crashed and burned—to help him reverse-engineer an IBM PC. They succeed. Then, in a fit of seeming irrationality that turns out to be anything but, MacMillan informs Big Blue, triggering a lawsuit that forces Cardiff to legitimize the boys’ hobby by bringing it in-house and hiring an outside programmer—i.e., Howe—to finish what they started. By the end of the pilot, our trio is in place: the Machiavellian MacMillan, the subversive Howe, the conflicted Clark, all collaborating at Cardiff—despite violent opposition from the bosses they’ve cornered—to revolutionize personal computing.

The question now is whether Halt and Catch Fire will work as well as MacMillan’s master plan. Pilots are like coloring books: the broad strokes in black and white. The actual color comes later. So while Cantwell and Rogers’s bold outlines are appealing, I worry that the series won’t have enough material in reserve to fill in the blanks. Right now, MacMillan is so slick, he’s almost ungraspable: a charming cipher whose insatiable id propels the plot forward but has little to offer in the way of, you know, human interest. And what about the whole “building a computer” premise? How many montages of pasty engineers poking at circuit boards can a show uncork—there’s a long one in the premiere—before becoming a bore?

The trickiest issue, however, is scope. The greatest cable dramas aren’t only about their milieu. They’re about bigger things, too. Deadwood wasn’t about the Wild West; it was about how societies take shape. Game of Thrones isn’t about Westeros; it’s about power. And so on. The reason, I think, that so many of AMC’s recent efforts have faltered is because they seem small in comparison; they’re too narrow—too focused on a particular period or a particular field—to transcend those particulars and resonate on a deeper level. Halt and Catch Fire seems like it could be that sort of series: virtuous but minor. Then again, no one has seen enough of it yet to say.

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As an armada of IBM lawyers are filing into Cardiff headquarters at the very end of the pilot, Clark asks MacMillan a crucial question: “What are you trying to prove with all this?” We’ll have to wait and see whether MacMillan has a good answer for that—the kind of answer that can transform Halt and Catch Fire into something more than a crafty show about the birth of the modern PC industry. If he does, then so will AMC.