June 9, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”



A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on HALT AND CATCH FIRE:  In 1983 Texas, the enigmatic, charismatic Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) comes to sleepy Cardiff Electric and manipulates the company into going to war with IBM, his former employer.  He recruits Cardiff engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), depressed by the drudgery of his regular work, to reverse-engineer the IBM personal computer (the market leader by far at the time), then lets IBM know that he’s done it–and since that’s illegal, the only way Cardiff can prove its “innocence” is by re-duplicating IBM’s machine, but this time without using IBM’s copyrighted BIOS code.  Joe has the person for that job, too:  punky and brilliant programmer Cameron Howe  (Mackenzie Davis).  The idea is that once Cardiff has legally copied the IBM computer, it can legally compete with it.  By the pilot’s end, Joe, who has secrets buried in his past about why he left IBM 18 months earlier and other things, has endangered Cardiff’s survival as well as Gordon’s job and marriage to Donna (Kerry Bishe), but he’s put Cardiff into the PC business whether it wants to be or not.

Episode 2:  The pieces in Halt and Catch Fire‘s box are rattling around instead of fitting together.  The show’s second hour, written by series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, picked up where the pilot left off, with a horde of IBM lawyers coming to Cardiff to interrogate and intimidate just about everyone.  Joe’s plan to have Cameron re-invent the IBM PC worked, as far as keeping the lawyers at bay, but Cameron still had to crack the IBM machine without use of its BIOS, easier said than done.  Also, although Joe has so far been presented as a master strategist who’s always one step ahead of the dullard competition, it never occurred to him that IBM might go after Cardiff by undercutting its deals with all its non-PC customers, thus leaving it without 70% of its clients and on the verge of going bankrupt.  (IBM also offered jobs to Joe and Cameron.)  Add to that Gordon’s continued problems at home (he lied to Donna that “Cameron” was a guy and not a hot 20-year old woman) and Cameron’s disgust with Joe’s unambitious plans for the new PC, which he only wants to be faster and cheaper than IBM’s, and the episode wound up with the three protagonists screaming at each other in the Cardiff parking lot, to no particular conclusion.

Along the way, we learned one concrete thing about Joe’s past–his father is an IBM big-shot–and heard him tell an extended lie about why he has scars all over his chest.  Nothing in the episode, however, succeeded in bringing us closer to Joe, Gordon or Cameron.  The mysteries of Joe’s past are far less engaging than Cantwell and Rogers seem to think they are (he’s not Don Draper redux, as much as they want him to be), while Gordon’s marital problems are banal and Cameron is coming across as a cliche of the nerd-genius girl who doesn’t notice how gorgeous she is, madly drawing her brilliant innovations on whiteboards when she’s not looking for quick sex to take her mind off things.  Everyone else at Cardiff just sputters and stares nonplussed at the three renegades.

It’s not clear yet whether Halt and Catch Fire is holding back too many of its narrative goodies in the hope of creating mystery, or if there really isn’t much going on with its characters or plot.  Having Joe stare at an IBM exec’s briefcase and then deliver the “Eureka!” order to his people that their PC has to have a handle just isn’t all that thrilling, and none of the characters are as likable as the guys on Silicon Valley or as intellectually thrilling as Aaron Sorkin’s version of Facebook in The Social Network.  So far, they all seem to be second-raters (by the end of the hour, Joe was pushing the forbidden binder of IBM BIOS on to Cameron, because she couldn’t crack the code quickly enough).  Regrettably, so does the series.  The actors, while certainly competent, aren’t finding whatever the key would be to make their roles spark to life.

Halt and Catch Fire got off to a slow start in last week’s ratings, and although AMC had the excuse that the pilot had been available online and on VOD, those situations rarely seem to lead to a big Week 2 bump.  Halt represents an original idea for a TV drama, and that deserves applause and attention, but after 2 hours, nothing suggests that AMC has found its new killer app.


PILOT + 1:  Not Processing Fast Enough


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."