TV Review: “Halt and Catch Fire” – Nothing to Burn

Written by Spencer Sterritt July 07, 2014

Halt and Catch Fire, AMC

AMC used to be a prestige drama network with it’s flagship titles “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” receiving accolades at every turn. Unfortunately, nothing produced at AMC after those two has been as critically successful, and it seems the network might really be in the weeds once “Mad Men” finishes next year. Their newest project, “Halt and Catch Fire”, tries to be the next prestige period piece, but it is unfortunately all halt and no fire.

Replace a 50’s advertising agency with an 80’s computer manufacturer and you’ve got “Halt and Catch Fire.” Lee Pace stars in the Don Draper-esque role as Joe MacMillan, a mystery man who swoops into a small company called Cardiff Electric with the grand idea to reverse engineer an IBM 2 (which is very illegal), and make their own personal and portable computer. Scoot McNairy stars as Gordon Clark, a burned out computer engineer who already tried and failed to revolutionize the computer industry. Mackenzie Davis plays programmer Cameron Howe, who fits all the stereotypes of a female computer punk in the 80’s.

 “You say things with the right authority, you generally get what you want.”

The biggest problem facing “Halt and Catch Fire” right now is that it’s not about anything. Unlike “Mad Men,” it’s not trying to say anything about the human condition, and ignores the many computer and programming related metaphors that are available. Tonally the show is all over the map. The fifth episode, “Adventure”, opens with everyone being relatively happy before the title sequence break, but then everyone is back at each others throats for the rest of the episode in a way that doesn’t feel natural.

Halt and Catch Fire, Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy

As a plus though, it does have my second favorite intro sequence of the year:

Scoot McNairy is awesome as ever, and Mackenzie Davis does wonderful work as Cameron; however, Davis’ character is clearly written as wish fulfillment for lonely nerds, and doesn’t function as a real character. I’ve seen her in much better things, especially a tiny Texas-set noir called “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” , and it’s a shame to see her impressive acting chops wasted on such a paper-thin character.

 “I’m changing our little arrangement.”

Lee Pace has the toughest job as an actor, though. At least Gordon Clark and Cameron Howe are consistent characters. It’s not Lee Pace’s fault that Joe MacMillan’s actions depend on the scene, and not the character. He’s either smug and dismissive of his team when they make a breakthrough, or fake and smiley for his big speech at the end of every episode, depending on what that scene needs.

Halt and Catch fire, Lee Pace

Early in the second episode, Cardiff Electric has its client base raided by IBM which sends everyone into a panic. Gordon looks right at Joe and yells, “You have a plan right,” and it seems Joe doesn’t. The show plays with the idea that Joe was simply a guy who wanted to get back at IBM for some reason and acted without any forethought, but then by episode’s end it has done away with that idea completely. Viewing the rest of the episodes as Joe’s scrambling attempt to pull his plan off adds some much needed tension to the story, and gives him a more interesting character arc, but it’s a real shame that the audience has to do all the work.

“They say you’re a modern day Ada Lovelace.”

“Halt and Catch Fire” seemed 100% geared to me. I know and love everyone in the cast, and I enjoy hearing all the 80’s tales of computer revolution. My personal enjoyment of that history is the only thing keeping me watching “Halt and Catch Fire.” It’s not a terrible show, but it is poorly written which begets poor acting, giving us a boring story outside of all the tech stuff. I’ll be sticking with it until the end of the season, but if you haven’t already started watching, I recommend you halt and ignore.

My Rating: 6/10

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About Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt

Spencer Sterritt: former Editor-In-Chief for We Eat Films, future President of the Men With Beards Club, and hopefully candidate for ruler of the world.

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