Sunday, June 1, 2014

Pilot Review: Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire (Sundays at 10:00 on AMC; Premieres June 1)

I'm hard pressed to think of something I'd rather watch a show about less than someone programming and reverse engineering a computer. And despite some stylish direction in the engineering sequence, Halt and Catch Fire can't make this concept interesting. It's a well-acted and directed show, but it's just hard to care about something so esoteric.

Set in 1983 at the dawn of personal computing, Halt and Catch Fire is about two miserable men. The first, salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies), is a self-righteous smooth talker with a secret and a checkered past. The other is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, Argo), a corporate drone who once had higher aspirations for himself than to be a husband to a more successful wife (Scrubs' Kerry Bishe). Joe barges into the computer company Gordon works for and then stalks Gordon in an attempt to get him to realize his potential and help to build a new computer out of IBM parts. They do, and then there's some legal stuff that happens, leading to Joe inviting a brilliant college student he once slept with (at the beginning of the episode, before the real story takes over) to join himself and Gordon in their quest for world domination... or something.

Look, I don't really understand a lot of what was happening in this pilot. Aside from the plot being, for me anyway, a total snooze, the characters are really poorly defined. Creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers were clearly going for a Don Draper type lead with Joe, and Pace does well bringing him some intensity, but his most definable feature is his eyebrows. We know too little about who he is and what his motivations are. The opposite can be said of Gordon, who is such a sap that I couldn't bear him anymore by the time the first hour ended. We first meet him as his wife is picking him up from the police station, followed by a drunken philosophical diatribe. He drinks to deal with his dead-end job and the suffocation of his dream of being a computer whizkid. Gordon is a dime a dozen. His only definable characteristics are the same as countless others in other shows. There's nothing unique about him. And how about Cameron, that genius college student we meet briefly at the start and finish of the pilot? We get to know next to nothing about her, except that she has a really bad haircut and loves to play Centipede. A show like this, with a topic that's so particular and even incomprehensible at times, needs to at least have relatable, dynamic characters. Otherwise, what is the audience supposed to latch onto?

And that's my problem with Halt and Catch Fire. It's a lot of seriousness and pompousness without much humanity and/or originality behind it. Director Juan Jose Campanella (House, Law & Order: SVU) injects some style into the rather dull script, especially in the aforementioned reverse engineering scene, which essentially is just the two lead characters reading numbers to each other, but it's not enough to make me want to watch any future episodes. There's a lot of talking about how computers work and what they have the potential to do, but there's not a lot of actual story or action. That's kind of AMC's M.O.; they have these hugely popular shows that are basically character studies (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead) in which things sometimes happen, but it's mostly about the complexity of the characters. But in the case of Halt and Catch Fire, the characters' beginnings are too pedestrian for that formula to work.

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