Since rebranding itself as a prestige TV showcase with the launch of Mad Men in 2007, AMC has hosted its share of critical gems (Breaking Bad), popular hits (The Walking Dead), and forgettable duds (Low Winter Sun). But its most recent series — The Killing, Hell on Wheels, and Turn — have failed to break out — so there’s some additional pressure on Halt and Catch Fire, which premiered Sunday night.
Set in 1983, the show revolves around Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a dynamic former IBM executive who wants to build a fledgling Dallas-based computer company into an outfit that can go toe to toe with Big Blue. One of the drones in the Dallas office is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a “misunderstood genius” whose brilliant vision has earned him nothing but a cubicle and a drinking problem. Together, with the help of Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a pretty programming punk, they set out to reverse-engineer the IBM PC and mass-produce their own rival product.
The premiere had a lot of information to sift through, characters to establish, and techno-speak to spoon-feed, so it might take a few episodes to determine whether Halt is a keeper. But it’s clear that creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers have studied what works and what doesn’t, and at first glance, they’ve borrowed generously from proven winners. In fact, it didn’t take me long after seeing Joe and Gordon at work to think, “They’re Don Draper and Walter White, right?”
Joe is handsome, dapper, and extremely smooth in front of an audience. He knows just enough about his innovative product, but more than that, he’s a born salesman. He talks his way into a job with his IBM pay stub in lieu of a resume, he regales a classroom of aspiring computer engineers, and he is extremely persuasive in front of his new clients, practically challenging their manhood when asking them to give him their business. Did I mention he can also be a Grade-A prick? He treats Gordon like dirt — at least until he knows how much he needs him — and his first encounter with Cameron isn’t so much a courtship as it is a frat-boy stalking and hookup. If Don Draper lived in Dallas in 1983, he could be Joe MacMillan.
Gordon is a hard-working schlep, an idealistic computer engineer who has played by the rules and has nothing to show for it. Like Walter White, he’s also bitter about losing out on his greatest intellectual achievement. Walter had Gray Matter Technology; Gordon has the Symphonic, a gizmo that may or may not have been stolen by his wife’s employer, Texas Instruments. Once, he wrote and spoke passionately about the barrier-breaking potential of computers — but now, he’s a sad sack with a disapproving wife (Kelly Bishé, who also played McNairy’s wife in Argo) and two children to feed. But guess what? Gordon has the intelligence to do what Joe needs done — reverse-engineer a PC. It’s illegal, of course, but so’s cooking meth, and maybe breaking the law will invigorate him and remind him that he’s still alive. I’m cool with this path as long as Gordon doesn’t start wearing a pork pie hat.
Cameron also resembles a recent break-out television character, but one from off the AMC reservation. Perhaps it’s her particularly rough and raunchy first romantic encounter with Joe, but she immediately reminded me of Zoe Barnes from House of Cards. There’s also more to the comparison than her relationship with the older man: Cameron is a digital maverick in an analog world, and she knows how to play the game. Note her deft negotiating skills for joining Joe and Gordon’s crusade. In an important way, though, Cameron and Joe’s relationship is an inverse of Zoe and Frank Underwood’s: Joe needs Cameron for his professional survival.
I’ve no qualms with Halt borrowing some personality traits from some of my favorite TV characters. As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Here, I’ll settle for “at least something different.”