TV Review: Halt and Catch Fire – Season 1, Episode 1 (USA, 2014)

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Premiering on AMC in the US today – from the people who brought us Breaking BadHalt and Catch Fire follows on from the Mike Judge fronted HBO comedy Silicon Valley in giving us a different look at the world of computers and technology development. I had the opportunity to see the show’s pilot during SXSW and bring you my first thoughts of the production here. You can also look back at some of the quotes from the actors and crew involved in Halt and Catch Fire in THIS article we published during SXSW.

Halt and Catch Fire takes us back in time to the early 1980s (1983 to be exact), when the Texas city of Dallas was a part of the American technological boom, as part of an area now affectionately known as “Silicon Prairie”. The show focuses on programmers at a fictional company called Cardiff Electric, and though fictional, it exists in a very real world, where IBM were the leaders of the field and everyone wanted a piece of the action. The show follows two programmers, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who take it upon themselves to propel their company forward by writing an IBM code from scratch, breaking copyright and incurring the legal wrath of IBM’s supremacy.

They want to get in on the action, and they’ll do what it takes to get there. OK, so that’s a storyline that’s only going to get us so far… so what else is going on here? Well, like any series, the relationship of the characters proves to be the underlying story arch that keeps all the wheels moving. Firstly, you have Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) – a charming and over ambitious programmer who disappears from IBM and approaches Cardiff to work for them, with another agenda in place entirely: to take the wind out of IBM’s sails entirely in ways that the company doesn’t find appetizing.

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The motivation for doing this is yet to be revealed (blind ambition? Maybe… but it’s more traditional for these storylines to reveal some clear cut motivation… e.g. REVENGE?), but he needs to rope in Gordon Clark to make it happen. As the group said in the Q&A that followed the screening, Gordon and his wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), represent what happens when you go into the garage to build something, and it fails, causing them to lose everything. It’s the ”what would have happened if Steve Jobs had failed in his garage? Where would he have gone from there?” question. And it’s an interesting one. Understandably, Gordon proves difficult to be convinced to get back involved with a garage-based venture, but by the end of the episode, he’s roped into whatever plan Joe has put into motion.

This was a pilot in the most classic sense – there’s not much “wow” factor here, as there might have been in the first episodes of Lost or Game of Thrones. This is an episode to set everything up for what is to come. So there was a certain dryness to it that kept it from being anything outstanding. Seeing two characters building code from scratch can only be so exciting, after all. But it’s laid the pieces for what will undoubtedly be an intriguing series, what with the producers of Breaking Bad behind it and all. Well, here’s hoping it goes that way anyway.

The other piece of the puzzle they’ve laid out for us is the character of Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a quirky programming student who proves herself to Joe to be a bit of a smart one in the field. But broody and rebellious, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether she’ll help or hinder their project. And there are no doubt other characters who exist on the periphery that will prove themselves to be much of the same.

An slow start for an exciting premise… but you could have said the same for Mad Men. I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes from here.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Halt and Catch Fire premiered in the US on AMC on June 1st and is the first series to have its pilot premiere through the Tumblr platform, which happened last month. Hopscotch will be releasing the series in Australia later in the year. Stay tuned to The Iris for more updates about the series! The pilot was reviewed at a special premiere screening at SXSW as part of their new TV programming.