Seeking to wed the birth of the personal-computer era to a “Mad Men” vibe, AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” takes a 30-year leap back to the early days of the business, pairing a fast-talking salesman/wheeler-dealer with a buttoned-up, family-man tech genius. If that sounds a bit like “The Social Network” meets “Pirates of Silicon Valley,” that’s the intent, with Lee Pace (“Pushing Daisies”) a welcome and convincing presence in the former role. Despite its assets, though, the series still feels more like a programmatic reboot of familiar themes than anything shiny, new and next-gen.
“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing,” Pace’s Joe MacMillan explains near the outset, operating in Texas’ Silicon Prairie for a fictional company called Cardiff Electric, and exhibiting a glibness that feels as if he’s auditioning for a TED talk in the distant future.
Having left computer titan IBM, Joe envisions building “a machine that nobody else has the balls to build,” and believes he’s found just the guy to do that in Gordon (Scoot McNairy), who doesn’t fully trust Joe (nor should he), but can’t resist the opportunity, despite the misgivings of his wife (Kerry Bishe).
Written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, “Halt” — which draws its title from a bit of early computer terminology — has a slick, high-class feel to it, and niftily sets its time and place. (There’s even “Return of the Jedi” on a theater marquee.)
Scratch a little beneath the surface, however, and almost every beat in the pilot feels derivative of the increasingly rich cinematic lore documenting this period. That includes the young, intuitive and alluring tech whiz (Mackenzie Davis) who Joe meets and champions after a visit to her college. Hey, gotta reach those younger demos somehow.
There are certainly enough moving parts here (pardon the expression) to merit further attention, but there’s also a feeling that the whole thing is running in mud (or at least sand). And while the mix of nostalgia and big business — including Joe’s take-no-prisoners, sort-out-the-damage-later approach — plays like a logical companion to “Mad Men,” there’s a coolness and sense of remove that has blunted that show’s commercial appeal, and could do the same here.
Granted, AMC already has its huge commercial hit in “The Walking Dead,” but it could use another prestige commodity, with “Breaking Bad” finished, “Mad Men” entering its home stretch and the new period drama “Turn” possessing as much vitality as a painting of George Washington.
Based on first impressions, “Halt and Catch Fire” doesn’t look like it has the RAM for the job. But it will take a bit of time to determine whether the show’s content is worth saving, or if the next command should be control-alt-delete.