‘Computers aren’t the thing; they’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Get your head around that and get ready for another potentially great drama from AMC.
Halt and Catch Fire (Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.) is new and crazy-good. A caveat, mind you – the first episode was available for review and only that. You, me and everyone interested in sophisticated, engaging drama that takes us into a strange, involving world, will hope that all episodes of the 10-part series are just as smart.
AMC has had its ups and down in this area. Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead are fabulous shows. Rubicon was excellent but lasted only one season. Low Winter Sun was a disappointment and the historical spy drama Turn is messily unfocused. These days we expect a ceaseless parade of great dramas to come from cable. Possibly, Halt and Catch Fire is the next big one.
Created and written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the show takes us to Texas in the early 1980s. The cowboys, villains and outlaws in this Texas are involved in the computer racket. The PC has arrived, IBM owns the landscape and everybody is afraid of IBM – and envious. In Texas, there’s a company called Cardiff Electric and into it strides a mysterious, gruff but charming varmint named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, best known for playing the lead in the wonderful cancelled series Pushing Daisies). He tells the boss, John Bosworth (Toby Huss, who is excellent), that he’s a former IBM sales whiz, and he can help Cardiff Electric to compete.
It becomes clear – after an unsettling sex scene – that Joe has another plan. He’s not that interested in sales. He’s at Cardiff because there exists in the company a genius engineer, one Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Gordon lives a quiet life with the wife and kids, but has a heavy heart. Some time before, he’d created a computer and, at the first opportunity to show it off, the device failed. He was close, so very, very close. What Joe wants is for Gordon to reverse-engineer an IBM PC, figure out its secrets and reuse them to create an even better PC. Joe snarls, “This is an industry built on people ripping off other people’s boring ideas.”
Joe is charismatic and manipulative, and Gordon feels beaten down. His wife warns him about stretching his dreams too far. And Joe snarls, “I’ll ask you one more time. Do you want to be more?” Gordon gives in, and our drama is under way.
Soon we have a renegade trio, Joe, Gordon and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a punkish young woman who says she is “a college dropout repairing VCRs for $3.25 an hour.” She too is, of course, a technical genius of sorts.
There are wonderful scenes inside this odd world – a tiny computer company in Texas attempting a clandestine overthrow of IBM in the personal-computer market. For a start, it turns out that Joe disappeared from IBM and the company thinks he’s dead. When they discover he’s working at Cardiff, corporate warfare starts. And the Cardiff boss wonders, “Can we fire these peckerheads?”
The central dramatic tension is between Joe, the flamboyant, driven entrepreneur, the Steve Jobs type, terrifying in his intensity, and Gordon, the family man with bills to pay and in his soul a visionary he’d like to keep hidden. It takes a while – too long – before the female characters, Cameron and Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), truly emerge.
Halt and Catch Fire is written with great verve and this world of computer technology in Texas is enthralling – partly geekish and partly Old West exuberant. The soundtrack of late-seventies angst-rock is nicely added and the first episode is beautifully shot. A fabulous recipe is being cooked up here. Is this the next great cable drama? It will take multiple episodes to know, but there’s a chance it is just that.
Also airing this weekend
Lunarcy!(Sunday, Documentary channel, 9 p.m.), is a charming doc about moon mania. That is, it’s about a small group of people obsessed with the moon. They love it; they want to be there. And soon. Director Simon Ennis treats these people gently and gives us an entertaining trip through our long obsession with the moon, from old cartoons and comic books to contemporary conspiracy theories. It’s wacky but enlightening.
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