Monday, June 2, 2014

Halt and Catch Fire Series Premiere Review: I/O - First Impressions

Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace hatch a plan in "Halt and Catch Fire"

It’s an easy joke to say that AMC’s newest drama, Halt and Catch Fire is reverse-engineered from every other prestige cable drama we’ve seen in the last fifteen years.  Yes it’s a period piece like Mad Men.  It’s set in the early-1980s, like The Americans.  Yes, its lead character is an intelligent, enigmatic charmer who manages to talk pretty much everybody he meets into doing whatever it is he wants and even when his plans go completely sideways, still manages to find a way to come out on top.  Yes, he’s Don Draper, Walter White, and every other male anti-hero you’ve seen since Tony Soprano.  The sympathetic male character even gets a shrill wife beating down his dreams in order to protect their family, just like…well…every wife of every male anti-hero you’ve seen since Carmela Soprano.

It’s true that there is a lot here that borrows from other shows.  But as every character in Halt and Catch Fire is drawn to Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, I am drawn to this show’s charms.  The performances are electric and the pilot’s caper-like plot had me attracted like few drama pilots I’ve seen.  There is still a good deal of work to be done, and we are only one episode in, but this is a show with a enormous potential just waiting to be unleashed.

Halt’s premiere episode follows Joe as he bounces from supporting character to supporting character, charming the pants off of them (yes, sometimes literally) all along the way.  He plays the board like a chess game, opening with a too-smart computer science student at Generic Eastern University in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) who, aside from the whole “pants” thing, is just a seed he’s planting for later.  He then talks his way past Cardiff Electric executive John (Toby Huss) to earn himself a sales position where he immediately begins recruiting mousy, cowed software engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), whom he taunts over a failed career filled with unmet promise.  Within days, he’s convinced Gordon to lie to his wife and reverse-engineer IBM’s PC hardware leading to the threat of a massive lawsuit and the possible bankrupting of Cardiff Electric.

As it turns out, that was all part of Joe’s master plan as he would never be satisfied selling software at a safe, boring mid-level computer company.  He wants to build the next great personal computer and he needs Gordon, whose previous failed attempt at hardware he calls “ahead of its time” and Cameron, who he brings to Cardiff in order to legitimize their hardware program and keep from getting destroyed by IBM.  It’s a complex plot, but it serves mostly to bring the gang together.

And that gang is filled with magnetic performances.  Lee Pace typically has a fairly bland visual affect, but here he’s like lightning in a bottle: I just can’t take my eyes off of him.  He dominates every scene he’s in (especially those with McNairy, who is serving a far more dour role) and only occasional crosses the line into full-on scenery chewing mode.  McNairy is given the much more difficult job, having to play the passive, reluctant cubicle dweller who will inevitably be talked out of his comfort zone.  It’s a tough task because we pretty much know where his character is going even as he plays the sad sack.  Thankfully, McNairy seems to lighten up in the latter half of the episode when his character does, finally becoming more than a lump for Joe to needle and prod or for his wife to yell at.

Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), is a bit of a problem at this juncture.  I see in her the same traits that caused a certain segment of the audience to turn on Carmela Soprano, and Betty Draper, and Skylar White.  She is overbearing.  She does try to keep her husband from following his dream.  While she does relent in the end, it’s clear that the Clarks’ home life is going to be a continuing source of drama for the show.  But I think they’re trying to do something a little more interesting with Donna.  For starters, she’s an intelligent, driven woman in her own right, working as an engineer at Texas Instruments.  Additionally, she and Gordon have already tried, and failed, together to design and sell a personal computer and it almost cost them everything.  There’s a real character here beyond just “overbearing wife wants to keep her husband from doing fun things.”  It will take a while before we really know where they’re going with this relationship, but I’m not going to write off Donna just yet.

Halt’s biggest problem so far is that its pilot gives no real indication of what the series will be moving forward.  “I/O” is a fantastic caper, as Joe assembles his crew, engages in back-room deals, spends a weekend essentially trying to crack a safe, and even gets caught, only for the viewer to discover that getting caught was part of the plan all along.  It makes for a rollicking 47 minutes, but I don’t know that the show can keep that same pace for 13 episodes.  So where will it go now?  Will it turn into a deep character drama, or will it keep trying to find do-or-die stakes in the world of 1980s computers?  While I like the cast, the characters aren’t yet deep enough to support the former and the latter might just end up hokey.

I don’t know where Halt and Catch Fire is going and even professional critics haven’t seen past the first episode, an unusual move for cable networks but probably an indication of how much faith AMC had in this pilot.  It is a faith not misplaced as the energy and magnetism Lee Pace brings allows the episode to hurtle at blazing speeds.  My only questions are about the future, but the ride thus far has me glued to my seat. 

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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