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'Halt and Catch Fire' dives into '80s tech war with AMC flair

TelevisionColumnEntertainmentAMC (tv network)IBMLee PaceSundance Film Festival
First episode of AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' a provocative view of '80s tech war
AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' owes a debt to 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' says @marymacTV
'Halt and Catch Fire' furthers AMC's reputation for risk-taking

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," AMC's latest character-driven drama premiering Sunday, doesn't hit the gloriously high bar set by the opening episode of "Mad Men," it is provocative and promising nonetheless.

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 (Lee Pace), a fast-talking alpha-male maverick late of IBM who understands that, conventional wisdom notwithstanding, the tech wars are not over. They're just beginning. Joe's new employer, however, isn't buying it. Cardiff Electric is a family business, slow moving and middle of the road; they need a new salesman to push product, not reinvent it.

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 Sundance Kid" — had the outlaws worked out of a garage and Sundance wore oversized glasses and high-waisted pants. Moments of hyper-realism (Gordon's beat-up car, the earth tones of the Clark kitchen) are studded with the archetypes and symbolic imagery of the western spaghetti and otherwise.

This being 2014, the Katharine Ross role has been expanded and is filled by Mackenzie Davis who plays Cameron, a super-cute, super-smart geek-girl prototype in camos and a pixie cut who helps Joe and Gordon take on the system. In this case IBM instead of the banks.

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 "Breaking Bad." Then, just as AMC seemed content with quality over huge audiences, "The Walking Dead" gave them both.

In between and since, there have been shows that did not produce big numbers or multiple Emmys: "Rubicon" and the miniseries "The Prisoner," "Low Winter Sun." The ill-fated "The Killing" struggled, "Hell on Wheels" and this year's "Turn" have not been canceled but neither have they caught fire.

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.

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'Halt and Catch Fire'

Where: AMC

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language, sex and violence)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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TelevisionColumnEntertainmentAMC (tv network)IBMLee PaceSundance Film Festival
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