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Despite outward appearances, this is a particularly important time in the history of AMC. Yes, it’s dominating in the ratings when The Walking Dead is on. Yes, it has two of the greatest dramas in TV history with Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
But Breaking Bad is over and done and there’s no guarantee the Better Call Saul spinoff will work. Mad Men is done for a year and seven episodes from being done forever. And there hasn’t been much successful scripted development in AMC’s recent past, from Rubicon, The Killing and Low Winter Sun — none of which are on the air — to Hell on Wheels and Turn, which are airing but haven’t attracted the same ratings or acclaim as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead.
That’s what makes the buzzed-about new series Halt and Catch Fire so important. In a world where AMC has nowhere near the track record of closest rival FX and is still playing in on field of heavyweights that include HBO, Showtime and Starz, launching another drama with gravitas (and, preferably, solid ratings) is of the utmost importance. If Turn and Hell on Wheels are left as AMC’s dramatic cornerstones, then TNT is a more realistic qualitative competitor than the aforementioned nets. If you’re selling prestige, that’s not ideal.
The good news is that Halt and Catch Fire is a triumphant pilot with excellent writing, impressive acting and a noteworthy cinematic visual style. The bad news is that AMC has given this important piece of content a lackluster launch. With only one episode to judge — an episode put online before critics got a look at it — and not the three or four episodes that FX, HBO and Showtime frequently offer up, nothing can be done but take a wait-and-see approach.
Why? Because pilots lie.
Television history is littered with great pilots that lead to disappointing second episodes and tellingly bad third episodes. A great pilot means nothing. Other than “It’s a great pilot.”
So it’s unfortunate that, for whatever reason, AMC didn’t plan the Halt and Catch Fire launch with more precision. Because everything I have to say about it now comes with a caveat. One that should read: “This praise might not hold true for the next episode. Or the one after that.”
But there’s much to like initially, particularly the writing — which is the backbone of any great television series. Created and written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, Halt and Catch Fire looks at the burgeoning computer revolution of the 1980s when IBM was out front — and misguidedly and prematurely crowned the winner — in the PC wars. It’s basic premise is simple but rife with dramatic opportunity: A small group of people at a midlevel computer company in Texas attempt to reverse-engineer an IBM PC, steal the technology and simultaneously improve upon it.
It all kicks off when smooth-talking sales exec Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) arrives at Cardiff Electric and promises to dramatically improve sales. As a former IBM sales guy, MacMillan knows the weaknesses of the computer giant and how to position Cardiff Electric to cut into their sales. His “East Coast” sheen rubs Cardiff Electric’s senior vp, John Bosworth (Toby Huss) the wrong way, but Bosworth also knows that MacMillan’s suave ways could boost the bottom line.
What nobody realizes yet is that MacMillan, not that far removed from the Steve Jobs school of hype and magical thinking, has a grand plan in place. He knows that an engineer at Cardiff Electric, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), is a visionary talent numbed-out and coasting because his Big Idea — a computer he made — failed in the spotlight. MacMillan believes Clark can reverse-engineer the IBM PC and open the door to a better future. In an industry where stolen ideas are the bedrock of growth, MacMillan has no moral issues with using Cardiff Electric to leap-frog into that future.
Halt and Catch Fire burns throughout with stellar performances from Pace, McNairy, Huss and Mackenzie Davis, who plays 22-year-old female coding prodigy Cameron Howe; plus Kerry Bishe as Gordon’s wife, Donna, who is also a computer engineer. Their work in particular gives rise to hope that if the Halt and Catch Fire writing stays strong, AMC might have something special on its hands. In just under an hour, those five actors give a concrete sense of who their characters are, which is impressive.
A lot of credit goes to director Juan Jose Campanella, whose work in framing, composition and lighting make the pilot look like a full-blown movie. And he manages to capture Pace’s nuanced magnetism in close-ups that reveal the character doesn’t have as much confidence as he might project.
Cantwell and Rogers imbue Halt and Catch Fire with that thrill-of-the-new-discovery which permeates the tech industry. By setting it in a time where everybody thought IBM had successfully beaten back all of its rivals and thus the gold rush was over, it gives the writers a lot to play with. Obviously, massive change in the personal computer world was just beginning, not ending. And the flashy ’80s make it just retro enough to add the right ambience to outlandish dreams of success. It’s a premise with possibilities and could be AMC’s best offering of the post-classics (Breaking Bad, Mad Men) era.
But ultimately that means nothing until we see the next episode. And the one after that. And the one after that. So take this early praise with that caveat.
In a world where viewers have myriad quality shows to choose from it’s surprising that AMC didn’t reverse-engineer the failures of Hell on Wheels, Turn and even The Killing to better launch a series its future heavily depends on.
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