Hey TV.com, Should I Watch AMC's Computer-Boom Drama Halt and Catch Fire?

By Tim Surette

May 30, 2014

Forget what that antiquated Garfield calendar says, summer is HERE. Almost all of the broadcast finales have wheezed across the finish line of the season (someone get Hannibal some oxygen!), and it's time for cable to strut its stuff. While the next few months will bring all kinds of new shows, AMC isn't waiting to debut one of the more intriguing offerings in its portfolio, the computer-revolution drama Halt and Catch Fire. But the network's track record has been spotty as of late ("stay tuned for Low Winter Sun" still haunts my memories of Breaking Bad), so nothing is guaranteed. I've seen the first episode for Halt and Catch Fire, and I'm here to help you determine whether it's the right kind of show for you in another edition of Is This Show Lame or What?!

Halt and Catch Fire, so this is a fire safety video? Shouldn't it be Catch Fire, Halt, Drop, and Roll

No, dummy! The term "halt and catch fire," as the show will tell you right away, is an old computer command in which competing instructions vie for control all at once, forcing the machine to cease any meaningful function, kind of like a self-destruct button. It's an apt (if not entirely compelling) title for this drama about a visionary, an engineer, and a prodigy who team up to work on a new personal computer and build the future during the computer boom of the 1980s. Joe MacMillan is an arrogant salesman who wants to push into new territory; Gordon Clark is a washed-up engineer whose life has been weighed down by marriage and family; and Cameron Howe is a punkish prodigy who spends more time playing Centipede than using her skills to improve the tech world. With IBM breathing down their necks, personal risks straining their patience, and a whole lot of diodes and microchips scattered all over the place, they'll either realize their vision or burn the whole place to the ground.

Whose show is this, and who stars in it?

Halt and Catch Fire was created by Christopher Cantwell and Chris Rogers, two writers with few credits. Mark Johnson, who executive-produced Breaking Bad and SundanceTV's Rectify, is an EP. The biggest draw is Lee Pace, who gets his first meaty television role since he played a pie-maker with a deadly touch in Pushing DaisiesScoot McNairy (Argo), Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment), Kerry Bishé (Scrubs), and Toby Huss (voice work on King of the Hill and The Venture Bros., lots of small live-action parts on shows like Reno 911! and The Adventures of Pete and Pete) round out the cast. It's basically The Lee Pace Show.

When does Halt and Catch Fire boot up?

Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday, June 1 at 10pm on AMC.  

Who might enjoy Halt and Catch Fire?

The show will obviously catch the eye of anyone in the tech industry, and it doesn't dumb down its computer-speak all that much, so computer geeks can tune in without fear. But it's really a tale of trying to shake up the status quo and risking everything for money, fame, and passion, so anyone who likes that kind of story should enjoy it. 

What's on fire about Halt and Catch Fire?

The story is primed to yield some serious drama, chiefly between the three members of the team as they deal with infighting and external pressures. Lee Pace is very good, but the most impressive turns come from a trio of lesser-knowns. Scoot McNairy is bound to draw some attention for his performance as Gordon, Kerry Bishé brings earnestness to her role as Gordon's wife Donna, and Toby Huss is a wound-up ball of fury as Joe's boss. Based on one visually gripping scene in the pilot, every technical hack-job scene is going to be a treat, though the overall cinematography is nothing special. And the soundtrack, which is largely comprised of synth-heavy beeps and boops mixed with the '80s version of electroclash, is super good, as is the opening credit sequence, which is already one of my favorites of the year.  

What isn't so great about Halt and Catch Fire?

By the end of the pilot, I definitely wanted to watch more, but getting there involved some major bugs. It mostly focuses on convincing the team to get together, even though we all know the team will get together, and the initial conflict is manufactured by some odd character behavior from just about everyone. It's not entirely engaging; on a casual watch, I turned it off after about five minutes. But once I was settled and ready, I got over the hump, and the story starts to take off about halfway through. 

So, should I watch it?

AMC hasn't debuted a must-watch program since Breaking Bad, so Halt and Catch Fire may be a case of wait-and-see. However, it's definitely the network's best new show in a while, so you won't be wasting your time by trying it out. If it sounds like something you'll be interested in, have a look. If it doesn't, it wouldn't be dumb to hold off for a few episodes to find out whether it generates any buzz. 

Let's take a look at a trailer!

Here you go!

Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday, June 1 at 10pm on AMC.

  • Comments (47)
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  • esthermiller01 Jun 01, 2014

    I watched my husband program computers for years, even build them... i can vouch for the fact that unless you like to see a man staring at a computer screen and swearing, it is not fun. :) He began back when they used ibm cards, that may have been a LITTLE more interesting, but doubtful.

  • bkyle2429 Jun 01, 2014

    I'm waiting for HELL ON WHEELS!!!!

  • SheilaGirl May 31, 2014

    I gave up about halfway thru the pilot. Lee Pace is great, but I find computers boring and the people who program computers boring, so he needed to be a more likeable character to keep my interest.

  • zookpr May 31, 2014

    I checked out the first episode because of Lee Pace. It was interesting and I'll probably watch it while doing other stuff but I was a huge fan of Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies and its not like them at all (of course). But that's the Lee Pace I love :)

  • B-a-n-e May 31, 2014

    So are they taking suggestions for episodes? If so, is there any chance they could do one where they reverse engineer the capacity to edit our comments on this site? That would be worth a 'season-pass' on the DVR. Just saying.

  • antdude May 31, 2014

    I saw its pilot online. It wasn't bad. It reminded me of Steve Woz and Steve Jobs with Apple.

  • GoranBelaj May 31, 2014

    Errrr no, they ripped off complety different people :P

  • docspector May 31, 2014

    The general history is interesting, but not that dramatic.
    The IBM PC was built quickly, using off-the-shelf components provided by other companies. The only part of the PC that was proprietary to IBM was the system BIOS. Potential cloners knew that they couldn't just copy the BIOS code, because that had been litigated already in Franklin v. Apple (Franklin computers were clones of the Apple II line, with a BIOS chip that was an exact copy of the Apple II's. Franklin argued that it wasn't copyrightable because it's functional*. They lost.)
    Anyways, it was flatly obvious that if you could reverse-engineer the BIOS, you could build a clone easily and cheaply, and sell it for far less than IBM charged. To copy the BIOS legally, you needed two teams of engineers. One took the original code and documented all the inputs and the related outputs. The other wrote a program that took the inputs and produced the exact same outputs. Because that second group of programmers didn't include anyone who had the original program, what they developed had to be original and not a copy, even if the resulting code was the same.
    IBM realized that the non-proprietary nature of the PC meant that clones were possible, and clones would be cheaper to buy, and thus IBM might lose control of the PC business. So they developed the "PS/2". Lots of things were different. The video was better, a mouse became standard equipment, floppy disks switched from 5.25" to 3.5", and the expansion bus was different. It was better, but it also was patented... cloners would have to pay IBM to use the patents if they wanted to make PS/2 compatibles. A few did (I remember Tandy offering a PS/2 compatible). The industry as a whole, however, decided that PS/2 compatibility was not important; they'd rather have cheaper computers compatible with the old PC than PS/2. IBM had lost control of the market, just six years after their decision to launch a product legitimized the industry for business.

  • ArkhamNative May 31, 2014

    Agreed, showing a team developing software probably isn't very entertaining TV. However, the show does seem very capable of presenting interesting, believable characters and their stories, which hopefully will carry a large enough audience.

    Also, a point of clarification to your summary. The PS/2 came along very late in the game, after the clone market had built up 5 years of inertia. It was as a leaf in an turbulent ocean. Even shipping with a 3.5" floppy and mouse wasn't really new. The Apple Macintosh started that some 3 years earlier.

  • docspector May 31, 2014

    The original PC came out in 1981 (want to know if you're looking at a real first-generation PC? Look for the cassette port next to the keyboard port). It was followed by the PC/XT and the PC/AT. The PS/2 came out in 1987. It was "late in the game" in the sense that the PS/2 model 80 was IBM's first 386, and Compaq beat them to market with the Deskpro 386.
    The clone market wasn't 5 years old when the PS/2 came out. The entire "PC Compatible" field was only 6.

    The PS/2 was the first PC compatible to include a mouse as part of the system. Yes, Macs had already, and so did Amigas, but PC's did not... until the PS/2.

    Personally, I think the pre-IBM microcomputer era was more interesting.

  • ArkhamNative May 31, 2014

    I meant "late" in that by the time the PS/2 came out, the clones were well-established, and IBM had little chance of regaining "control" (as you described it) or domination of the PC/compatible market.

    I omitted a brief timeline that I thought made my previous comment too long. I calculated 1982 (very first clones) to 1987 to add up to 5 years, though if we trust Wikipedia's months, it was only 4.8 years.

    Maybe my Texas perspective gives me a distorted view, but by the time the PS/2 came out, the non-IBM PCs were a robust, growing market, both cheaper and faster (the "Turbo" button!). :) Compaq (Houston) and Dell (Austin) had been selling products for years, and there were many "garage-atronics" brands, small local businesses assembling systems from parts.

  • Gilda May 31, 2014

    I think Ill be checking out this one. Although I have one question: are the characters ever in a room with good lighting? cause from the previews that ive seen theyre always in a dark place
    But yeah I hope its good b.c AMC hasn't really been producing any good new shows (Im looking at you Turn) and Ill need a new drama since Mad Men will be ending soon

  • alcalde May 31, 2014

    Thinking back, I'm not sure we had good lighting in the 1980s. But we did have friendship pins, so I'm sure that made up for it.

  • Brilliant May 31, 2014

    I saw the Pilot and it's Fantastic. Don't pay attention to what he says above.

  • sofia2173 May 30, 2014

    Lee Pace!

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