Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) in "Halt and Catch Fire" (Tina Rowden/AMC)
AMC’s new drama, “Halt and Catch Fire,” tells the fictionalized version of the personal computer revolution in the 1980s – the pilot script for which was widely available online shortly after its sale in 2012. After reading it, I felt that it would be the new show, the one that would take the torch from “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” continuing the standard of high-quality programing we’ve grown used to in recent years. Shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Silicon Valley” have hammered us over the head with the “nerd” archetype; the quiet, anti-social dweeb whose primary function is comic relief. This pilot throws all that out the window, bringing complex characters and a bleak, cut-throat industry on the verge of rapid transformation.
Though the episode, titled “I/O,” doesn’t stray significantly from the pilot script, it feels as though it’s missing some of its spark. Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers are the writers and creators, though neither are acting as showrunner. Instead, Jonathan Lisco takes the helm, most notable for his work on procedurals including “Southland,” “The District,” “K-Ville” and “NYPD Blue.” Usually the creators run the show, guiding their vision of what’s written into what is seen: David Simon, David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan. These men are responsible for arguably the greatest television ever created; they nurtured their visions from idea to episode, all sharing the same manic, obsessive desire for perfection. That isn’t to say that Mr. Lisco isn’t the right candidate for the job, only that that some of the nuances of the script were lost in translation.
Of all the daring stylistic choices, it is the editing that feels most jarring. Quick and ruthless, the scenes move at a brisk pace, all of which contribute to a very tight cut. Normally that would be a compliment, but in this instance I find myself needing a deep breath to take it all in instead of the lean pace. Maybe that’s why they give the directorial duties to Juan José Campanella, an Argentinian filmmaker most notable for his 2009 Oscar-winning film, The Secret In Their Eyes (I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it already.). Perhaps, they handed him the reins in the hopes that he would inject some of his proven artistic prowess into it. In a sense, he does. The visual style is bold, showing off vivid colors and high contrast, mimicking certain neo-noir styles. That said, though the colors are pleasing and the camerawork flashy, it, like the editing, suffers from trying too hard.
The marriage of the cinematography and the editing is often heavy-handed, especially during montages. One montage in particular comes to mind: MacMillan hitting baseballs into the walls of his apartment intercut with Clark brooding over his worktable as his family sleeps, all to the tune of XTC’s “Complicated Game.” It reminds me of a similar scene in “The Americans” pilot, when Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” plays over Keri Russell’s character dissolving a body in acid. It is a weird yet satisfying montage because it is a completely new combination of those emotions. In “Halt,” the effect is lost, as there is nothing as exciting as dissolving bodies or Phil Collins – instead it’s clichés, grumpiness and a song that doesn’t go quite right with either.
There are, however, places where all the flourishes work well, namely the sequence in which they reverse engineer an IBM computer. Here, the wild cuts and canted angles work to their advantage, as we eavesdrop on these masters of their craft going to work. There’s something voyeuristic about it, as if we’re the only ones privy to their methods (I like to call these technical sequences “Takin’ Care of Business” sequences – TCBs.). This scene is an example of how good “Halt” can be when it hits its stride. The rest is just a matter of knowing when to use it.
Though I’ve griped plenty on the aesthetics of the show, I must say that the characters and story are quite strong. In this universe, engineers are edgy, trailblazing the future of technology before them. Lee Pace (“Pushing Daisies”) and Scoot McNairy (“Bones”) are cast brilliantly alongside each other as Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark, respectively. MacMillan, an ex-IBM executive, moves to Dallas with the aim of setting up shop at a new company to build a competing machine to IBM’s market-leading computer. Once there, he recruits the help of down-and-out Clark, a visionary coder who missed valuable opportunities early in his career. Pace and McNairy are absorbing when together, at times displaying qualities of other characters we already know and love; MacMillan’s dramatic, inspiring, born-to-pitch mentality echoes Don Draper, while Clark’s brilliance, stifled by the resentment of his failures mirrors Walter White.
Despite its technical weaknesses and my monster expectations from the script, I consider this a strong pilot and am excited at its potential. Shows usually take time to find their rhythm, their visual style, their narrative pace. That’s why most pilots usually feel different from the episodes that follow. They’re sales pitches, and with the last of their flagship series’ ending soon, AMC is throwing everything at “Halt and Catch Fire” in the hopes that it can bear the burden. With that in mind, some over-reaching is to be expected. Regardless of all that, the show has a great cast, a strong concept, and most of all, it has time. The real test will be how long it stumbles before it can find its legs.
“Halt and Catch Fire”
Series premiere airs Sunday, June 1 at 10 p.m. on AMC
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