Over the past couple of weeks I've slowly become wrapped up in AMC's latest TV series, Halt and Catch Fire. Set against the backdrop of the early 80's the show loosely follows the early personal computer revolution in Texas' Silicon Prairie, featuring the fictional chip-manufacturing company Cardiff Electronics.
The show's title is taken from an actual computer code. On older computers, "Halt and Catch Fire" was essentially a self-destruct phrase that would overload CPUs, causing them to overheat and become unusable.
Now 6 episodes strong, HACF is shaping up to be a show that I now look forward to watching each week. When I first saw commercials for the series I was interested, but it took me sitting and watching a few episodes to get into it. Adimittedly, that is probably not the show's fault - the subject matter is technical stuff, with not a lot of action, and the show does its best to keep things interesting with the characters and story.
The series focuses on three main characters: Joe, Gordon and Cameron. Through a series of escalating circumstances, the trio are put in charge of a project at Cardiff Electronics to create a computer that rivals the IBM PC. Facing difficult odds and many uphill battles, the team must constantly change and adapt their ideas in their quest to create something more than just a PC.
Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, of Pushing Daisies fame) is considered to be the Visionary of the group. From the outset of the series, he was the one who orchestrated everything to kick-start the project, and he's good at talking to persuade and manipulate people. It's unclear just what Joe's ultimate motives are, but his history with IBM and his father has some connection to why he is so determined to rise above mediocrity in the industry.
Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, Argo) is the group's Engineer. He builds the computers, and knows the technical side of the industry better than the other characters. Despite his knowledge and experience, Gordon has, ironically, fallen into a bit of mediocrity in his life. He has difficulty balancing his work life with his family, and has trouble embracing newer methods that contradict years of work in his field. He is slowly learning to stand up for himself and think big.
Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) is the Prodigy of the group, rounding out the team. Rebellious and closed-off, she drops out of college and starts working for Joe and Gordon to write software for Cardiff's new PC project. Her new ideas and short-temper make her a challenging addition to the formula of the cast, and the latest episode went so far as to compare her to the future of the field.
(Warning: Contains some spoilers.)
Joe goes scouting at a college and is impressed when he meets Cameron, a young girl who not only knows a lot about computers, but also can think outside of the box about them. The two characters both seem to have troubled pasts, and bond over that and their interest in computers, and begin a complicated intimate relationship.
After this, Joe is hired on at Cardiff Electronics, due in part to his previous work experience at IBM. Within a short period of time of obtaining this new position, Joe reaches out to employee Gordon, who impressed him with his previous work in the field. Joe convinces Gordon to reverse-engineer a then-standard IBM processor with him, and after some hard work they walk away with a binder full of code for the IBM PC.
The next day IBM finds out that Joe and Gordon have reverse-engineered their CPU, and everyone at Cardiff is up in arms over the news. They determine that the only way they can proceed is to actually enter the personal computer industry and compete with IBM, using a clean-room technique to build their own processor on-par with an IBM processor. IBM learns this because Joe told them about it, forcing Cardiff's hand to get them to do what he wants.
IBM's legal team shows up at Cardiff's doorstep and questions everyone involved, including a newly-hired Cameron who will be writing the new PC's BIOS program. Joe dodges questions about where he vanished to after leaving IBM, and tells them they have no legal recourse. Meanwhile, Gordon receives a promotion and his own office.
Cardiff's CEO John Bosworth (Toby Huss, The Adventures of Pete & Pete) is already angry about being forced into the situation at his own company, and things get worse when he begins losing longtime clients and business-partners due to the circumstances. Furthermore, the company is forced to downsize and fire many of its employees to stay afloat for a while longer.
Cameron secretly lives in Cardiff's offices for a few nights while working on the BIOS, during which time she faces a lot of mental block and clashes with Joe and Gordon. A near catastrophe occurs when she loses all of her BIOS due to an electrical shortage, but this is revealed to be a ploy by Joe to teach Cameron to be more careful, and to get the company some press.
Cardiff needs to do more than simply enter the PC game to compete with IBM, they need something new. Joe eventually finds inspiration for this new concept - a portable computer. Progress is made on its development, but the engineers run into problems with getting the motherboard to fit into a smaller case. Gordon's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe, Scrubs) provides some much-needed perspective by using both sides of the motherboard, but all of her work ultimately goes unappreciated.
Another bottleneck arises in finding material to use for the portable PC's monitor. Gordon goes through his father-in-law's connections with the Japanese to get cutting-edge screens for the computers, but nearly botches the deal by getting drunk and not letting Joe do all of the talking.
Meanwhile Cameron returns from a vacation Joe sent her on to discover that Cardiff has hired on new employees to work on the operating system software. She doesn't get along well with her new boss, but befriends a pair of friendly geeks who sit near her. Cameron eventually determines that the workers who cheated while playing an adventure-style game she made would be better for the job than honest ones, and convinces Joe to fire her boss and many other workers, and put her in charge of the OS project. She becomes roommates with her geeky coworkers.
While working on the operating system, Cameron has an idea to make the OS user-friendly and 'talk' to the user. News of the idea alarms Gordon, who doesn't want to change things this far into the project, and doesn't want to lose more time when he already doesn't spend enough time with his family. At first Joe thinks Cardiff should ship the computer they've been working on, since it will be cheap and powerful like they wanted, but after spending time with Gordon's family during a storm comes to the conclusion that Cameron might be on to something.
One of the first things that made Halt and Catch Fire a difficult watch for me, was the liberties the show takes with history, and the way the show tries to spice things up and make everything more interesting for the sake of the show. There is certainly a lot of stuff done to make the show more appealing than it might have been if it were a direct account of some real company. But all in all, I'm happy to report it isn't that bad.
You know from the start that this show is a period drama. It's a TV show, of course not everything is fact. When you begin to look at HACF more like a show along the same lines of Mad Men, or really any other TV show starring fictional characters at different points of time (any show), it makes sense. And as a period drama this show works pretty decently. The atmosphere is that of a late 70's, early 80's vibe.
The subject matter of the show, to my knowledge, hasn't really been explored before in any other TV show, at least not as a main storyline. It's interesting because today computers are all around us, they're a major part of society today, and I think that makes this show all the more important. And even if we know how all of this already turned out, it is still interesting to look back and really get an idea of the sort of environment these places were like during the start of the PC revolution.
For a show about computers, there sure is a lot of sex and drama. But so far, now that I think about it, most of those scenes have made sense. I think mostly because Joe and Cameron have messy backgrounds and motives, and Gordon has some problems maintaining authority and respect in his life. The characters seemed pretty one-dimensional to me at first, but as more episodes air that is gradually remedied with more story and background.
A clear favorite character of mine from the start was Gordon, since I can relate to him personality-wise, and I also feel like a logical thinker with big dreams. I'm probably biased since I like the technical aspects of computers. But really I've grown to like something about all of the main characters, as well as some supporting characters like John and Donna.
Speaking of Donna, one thing that bothers me is the progressive suggestion that her character is thinking of cheating on Gordon with her boss. Her character doesn't seem like the type, and indeed maybe this is just some thinly-veiled plot to distract us from another development. Perhaps she will be tempted into spilling the secrets of the Cardiff computer to her boss, since she didn't get enough credit for her ideas through her husband.
One thing that is both a blessing and a curse for the program is the pace at which things move. On the one hand it seems unrealistic because the characters manage to do these amazing feats over the course of one or two episodes, like crack an IBM processor or write an entirely new BIOS. On the other hand, it keeps things interesting and makes it so that each episode is essentially the characters dealing with a new problem during the course of development.
I thought to myself tonight that it would have been interesting if the show maybe started a little earlier than this, in the mid-70's or so. It seems like there would have been a lot of opportunity for good story there. But I am given the impression that we will learn more about the past through dialogue in the show. I don't think we will have flashback scenes in HACF, but I am okay with that since they never seem authentic enough in other shows anyways.
Halt and Catch Fire seems to be finding its groove, and if it keeps going in the direction it has been going in, then I think it could become must-see TV by the time season two rolls around.
...There is going to be a season two, right? I guess we'll have to wait and see. But I'm hoping Halt and Catch Fire can be the new sort of workplace period drama for AMC that Mad Men has been. And I think this show could potentially appeal to a lot of people if it turns out well.
Here's to hoping Halt and Catch Fire can make the dawn of the PC era cool and interesting again.