Like the high-tech revolution itself, AMC's Halt and Catch Fire gets off to a bumpy start.
The big question after it premieres Sunday night is whether it will follow the trajectory of the age of personal computers or veer into predictability.
Yes, it's another show about the tech world, but what sets Halt apart from other series is that Silicon Valley is still a gleam in the eyes of the pioneering computer geeks of Texas' Silicon Prairie who think they can come up with a machine to counter IBM's early dominance of the market and make personal computing a reality.
Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, Halt begins with a pungent whiff of nervous corporate anxiety. You can almost feel the AMC front office types frettin' and sweatin' about whether viewers will stick around for jargon-laced dialogue about ROM BIOS without the promise of real action, so how about a rambunctious and unlikely sex scene to pique our interest?
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It's a punk move, to say the least. Once Halt figuratively puts it back in its pants, it settles into a predictable but engaging drama with a proper focus on how nerds, geeks and other proto-techies discarded their pocket protectors to launch the age of personal computers.
The story begins in 1983. Former IBM executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is telling a class of mostly male students how ill-equipped they are to play significant roles in the coming age of technology. He quizzes them on their knowledge and proves his point: Only two members of the class even know what he's talking about.
One of them is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who spends hours at a video game arcade reusing the same quarter, tied to a string, to play games. MacMillan tracks her down, they have sex in a back room, but MacMillan cautions her that this doesn't mean he's going to hire her.
Of course, he does hire her. It doesn't happen till the end of the episode, but if you don't know he's going to hire her when they're banging around the storage room, you must not watch much TV.
MacMillan gets himself hired at a small company called Cardiff Electric, owned by Central Casting's idea of a grizzled Texas rich guy. For reasons that at first make no sense, he cultivates a friendship with faceless computer engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who drinks too much and is barely hanging on to his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé) and two young daughters.
What is MacMillan up to? John Bosworth (Toby Huss), Cardiff's senior vice president, doesn't trust him. When MacMillan puts his cards on the table and unveils a bold plan to go head to head with Big Blue, Bosworth's skepticism is confirmed, but will he also regret his decision to hire him? We can probably guess, but that doesn't undermine the plot.
Although we can see where each character arc is heading — Gordon will straighten up and fly right, his wife will forbid him from getting involved in MacMillan's harebrained scheme but then relent, Cameron will join MacMillan and Gordon in their risky venture — there are nifty twists and turns in the premiere episode's plot. Not entirely believable, mind you, but they keep our interest.
For the unenlightened, the show's title is a tech term referring to a pattern of instructions that cause a computer's central processing unit to shut down. It's basically the same as a self-destruct mechanism. In this case, we're supposed to think about it not only in terms of MacMillan's plan, but of MacMillan himself. He's driven but haunted, and we suspect that what drives him is also what haunts him.
It isn't coincidental that Halt will occupy the same time slot as Mad Men on Sunday night. Like that show, Halt is about using the past as a lens to the present. But unlike Mad Men, the one episode of Halt sent to critics doesn't offer complicated, three-dimensional characters. Instead, we get versions of familiar types pulled from the character storage room. They're interesting, have some potential, and, to be sure, the show boasts some very good performances. But even the best performances can elevate limited writing only so much.