The adventures of three visionaries at a mid-level Texas computer company as they attempt to get a piece of the personal computer action during the 1980s does not sound like the stuff of great television.
But then neither did the story of a Madison Avenue ad man making his name shilling for Big Tobacco in the early 1960s. And though the pilot of "Halt and Catch Fire,"
With a title that refers to a computer term and an opening that speaks for itself — the lead character coolly runs down an armadillo — "Halt and Catch Fire" quickly establishes characters created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers to both personify and transcend the particulars of its story.
The armadillo killer is Joe MacMillan (
But Joe didn't come to Texas for the waters, or the status quo. He came to enlist the aid of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a brilliant engineer who stalled out when his own version of a personal computer tanked. Currently, Gordon is just another tech grind, trying to stay sober and keep his family afloat while his wife (Kerry Bishe), who works as a programmer for a toy company, looks on in frustration and despair. Which quickly turns to anxiety when Joe persuades Gordon to reverse-engineer an IBM PC in order to develop their own.
Directed by Juan Jose Campanella, the pilot sets up a palette, tone and story that owes a debt to "The Social Network," but an even larger one to "Butch Cassidy and the
This being 2014, the
By the end of the first hour, the audience has seesawed between "what have we done?" panic and "this could work" optimism just as frantically as the characters. AMC made only the first episode available, so it's tough to say where "Halt and Catch Fire" is going or how it will get there.
Pace, who proved himself a risk-taker in "Pushing Daises," is sure-footed and silver-tongued; McNairy is just the right blend of quenched spirit/whirring brain, and Davis, though playing a character that seems a bit modern for the time frame, certainly brings a glimpse of the future and some much needed sass. The '80s are fun, Texan tech magnates have potential and the sight of three misfits jousting with giants is always welcome.
If nothing else, the show furthers the AMC reputation for risk-taking. It's difficult to imagine a launch into original scripted drama more perfectly realized than the premiere of "Mad Men," followed a few months later by
In between and since, there have been shows that did not produce big numbers or multiple Emmys:
But if any network can claim to produce shows based on originality and story over imitation and repetition, it's AMC. Zombies, code-breakers, broken cops, meth-making teachers, colonial soldiers — AMC will try anything once.
Including, now, a trio of 1980s tech stars.
'Halt and Catch Fire'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday