When it was originally on: 2014-2017
Original network: AMC
Where you can stream it now: Netflix
Had I seen it before: No.
What IMDb says: Follows some players in the 80s technological revolution that lead to information society.
Why I picked it: Mostly because Kathryn VanArendonk said it was good.
But more broadly, AMC as a network intrigues me. They were instrumental in proving that basic cable networks could do the same kind of compelling, inventive narratives previously reserved for premium cable. Mad Men and Breaking Bad will be discussed by tv writers and scholars for decades to come. And yet, AMC hasn’t been able to muster the same kind of runaway success in more recent years. It’s not for lack of trying either. With shows like Preacher, Lodge 49, and yes, Halt and Catch Fire, AMC is still unafraid to take risks, yet none of those risks have paid off recently.
Halt and Catch Fire is also one of those shows that didn’t seem to become the best version of itself until later in its run. Its first season only has a 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, while later seasons range from 92 to 100. I always find pilots for such shows to be especially fascinating, and Halt and Cath Fire isn’t the only example on The List (I’m looking at you, Seinfeld). It should be interesting to see if we can pinpoint what’s working right away and what needs more work.
What I liked: The opening scene does a great job of establishing Cameron as a character and drawing me into the story. Right away, I understand the show is going to be about computer nerds doing computer things, and yet I’m still interested! Cameron is smart and rebellious with ambition to innovate the world of computers. She seems to think that no existing tech company is good enough to be worthy of her. I immediately wanted to know more about her and what she’s going to do with her skills.
One of my FAVORITE things that happens is how Cameron is so opposed to Joe initially, but once she learns he longer works for IBM, we get a smash cut to the two of them about to have sloppy sex in some kind of arcade basement (seriously though, where is this place?). We learn SO MUCH about her just by learning that “I don’t work for IBM” is the most arousing thing Joe could’ve said to her in this moment.
There’s also some great character development happening with Joe and Gordon. Both are vivid characters separately, and they have a great Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak dynamic happening. Joe is the abrasive asshole with a vision who knows how to take risks in order to get what he wants, Gordon is the lovable shy guy who actually has the technical skills necessary to make computer magic happen. These two have enough interactions with other characters outside of each other that they still feel like fully fleshed out people separately and they pop even more when they’re together.
I actually really like their call to give Gordon the family life vs. career fulfillment arc. It seems rather common first instinct to give housewives in period pieces the whole “oh, being a housewife isn’t enough!” conflict for fairly obvious reasons. But the notion of a man who has a job, a wife, and kids but still feels that providing for his family isn’t enough for self actualization feels fresh. And because the show also offers strong female characters by way of Cameron and Donna, it doesn’t feel like too much of a Mens Rights Activists.
The pilot also does a great job of establishing high stakes. It would be easy for three people screwing around with computers to feel like a low pressure environment, but Halt and Catch Fire introduces an IBM lawsuit where essentially the only way to beat it is design some newfangled piece of technology that’s different/better from the IBM chip.
I also don’t think this pilot successfully climbed the rather high mountain of letting an audience in on the highly technical world of 1980s computers. For this pilot to work, we needed to get a sense of where technology stood in 1983 (I think that’s when this takes place?). We need to understand how Cardiff Electric fits into the bigger picture. We need to understand what makes Joe and Gordon’s vision so different from the status quo, how they’re going to bridge the gap between 1983 computers and the computers we have in the 2010s (or 2020s!). And that doesn’t really happen.
Unfortunately, one of the somewhat common techniques of shows like this is they have characters speak in a lot of techno gibberish jargon as a means of demonstrating how smart the characters are. It’s as though the whole point is to have the audience left in the dust saying “wtf are they talking about?” And unfortunately, it DID hinder my ability to follow the story and get invested in it. I’m still hazy on what exactly our crack team of Joe, Gordon, and Cameron are really trying to design. I’m also supposed to believe that whatever they’re designing is going to be SUPER hard for them while also believing that Gordon can reverse engineer an IBM computer in just four days, and that also seems like a hard thing that should take more than four days.
I also wish Joe had a clearer motive. Was there anything personal between him and IBM? Does he simply have a pure, unbridled enthusiasm for computers but none of the technical know-how to do anything with it? Is he just trying to make a lot of money? A character with such strong convictions but no real reason for those convictions is a bit odd. Even if they hadn’t come out and told us Joe’s end game, simply teasing it could’ve gone a long way.