May 29, 2014

THE SKED Pilot Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”


HALT AND CATCH FIRE:  Sunday 10PM on AMC – Potential DVR Alert

HALT AND CATCH FIRE won’t remind you much of The Social Network.  (Or for that matter of Silicon Valley.)  Set in 1983 Texas and written by first-time series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (the series will be run by the more experienced writer/producer Jonathan Lisco, who wasn’t involved on the pilot), it’s another story about a high-tech start-up, but the product they’re working on is second-hand, and only one of the central characters fits the “young genius” mold.  The bulk of the leads are older and more weathered than the ones this subgenre usually focuses on, and they don’t bounce their dialogue off each other with high-speed fizzy techno-jargon.  It’s a warier, more deliberate, even somewhat downbeat take, and that’s an interesting angle on an increasingly familiar story, although at least in the pilot it doesn’t offer as much immediate fun.

The catalyst is Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a man of some mystery who arrives one day at the offices of mid-sized Cardiff Electric and talks himself into a sales job.  He’d been at IBM, which was in 1983 still the leader in the PC field, but as with another AMC antihero, there are holes in his history that are left to be revealed in later episodes.  Joe is Don Draper-ish not just in his veiled past, but also in his ability to convince people that it’s in their best interest to buy into whatever he’s selling, and he’s come to Cardiff with a secret goal:  to enlist engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to reverse-engineer the computer chip that’s at the root of IBM’s domination.  Gordon used to be an idealist, but when we meet him he’s deeply in debt because of an earlier failed attempt to produce a computer of his own design, and his family badly needs his salary and that of his wife Donna (Kerry Bishe), herself an engineer at Texas Instruments, to get out from under.  Reverse-engineering a company’s copyrighted work to create a duplicate is illegal, but Joe has an elaborate scheme that will pull Gordon and Cardiff into competition with IBM anyway, and that requires one more player, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a punkish 22-year old whiz kid who only appears in the opening and closing acts of the pilot but makes the strongest impression.

Unlike other bildungsromans about the computer world, Halt and Catch Fire (the title refers to a command which causes instant and simultaneous competition among all a computer’s programs, freezing it in its tracks) is populated by characters who are mostly reluctant to be there.  Gordon is terrified about his family’s future, the Cardiff people are apoplectic that Joe has maneuvered them into a place where they can’t tell him no, and Cameron seems to be hanging around to prove she can do it (and because of the sexual tension between her and Joe).  Even the product they’re putting together is just a copy of IBM’s, not a breakthrough of their own.  Halt isn’t heavy on the kind of swelling ambition and cocky expertise that we expect in this field, and the pilot’s dialogue isn’t Sorkin-esque flashy at all.

Joe is meant to be the charismatic center of the action, so he gets the big monologues and the air of knowing more than anyone else on screen, but at first glance Pace doesn’t pop with the character the way Jon Hamm did instantly as Don Draper.  McNairy is convincing as harried Gordon, who’s nevertheless the least interesting character–well, except for his wife Donna, whose role it is to remind Gordon that he has a mortgage to pay.  The Cardiff executives are so far interchangeable sticks in the mud with Texas drawls.  Davis, who’s had supporting roles in recent indies like Breathe In and That Awkward Moment, is the only one who gets any snappy dialogue, and she makes the most of her material.

It would have helped the Halt and Catch Fire pilot to have more of a distinctive visual style than director Juan Jose Campanella supplies; he directed the Foreign-Language Film Oscar winner The Secret In Their Eyes, but this is his first US pilot (although he’s shot plenty of American TV episodes), and the hour (mostly filmed in Georgia, where the series will be based) has a rather drab appearance.  That may suit the relatively sleepy setting, yet a show doesn’t have to be glamorous to have a memorable look.

In a summer TV season that will mostly be dominated by crime dramas, fantasy-adventures and horror, Halt and Catch Fire definitely has the potential to set itself apart.  However, it’s going to get very little help from having AMC’s weak Turn as its lead-in for its first two episodes, and will need to be a self-starter.  It’s unclear from the pilot whether it will be compelling enough to generate the kind of enthusiasm needed for its operating system to boot up.


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."