Monday, October 13, 2014

Halt and Catch Fire Season 1 Catch Up: "I/O"

Author's Note: The following is a series that will focus on a show that has already aired its first season. It's a means of catching up with it and writing about it when its second season premieres.
"What are you trying to prove with all this?"

Reverse engineering Mad Men isn't exactly the best starting point for a TV show.

That's exactly what Halt and Catch Fire does in its pilot episode. From the "Draper-esque" protagonist, a handsome businessman who's motives are as mysterious as his origins, to the authentic, if stylized, portrayal of its time period, to the focus on character development over plot momentum, to even the cutthroat business setting, calling Halt and Catch Fire "Mad Men: 80s" wouldn't be such a huge stretch. 

It's obvious that AMC, realizing that with Mad Men leaving and Breaking Bad ending, needs something that will rake in the awards. Yet rather than take a chance with someone with a proven track record of critically acclaimed television, AMC has instead opted to just simply copy the formulas of the tried and true.

Usually such a gambit doesn't work. Attempting to reverse engineer a show into existence usually just leads to uninspired archetypes, rehashed narratives, and simply makes for uninteresting TV in general.

So boy was I completely shocked when Halt and Catch Fire completely bucked this trend. Not only was it an engaging, solid hour that lays the foundation for what should be a fairly thought-provoking, if not at the very least engaging, series on the PC revolution of the 80s, it actually went to some very unique and interesting places that bode quite well for the future, while also raising some ominous red flags.

Taking place in 1938, Halt and Catch Fire follows mysterious businessman Joe MacMillan, played by Lee Pace, as he attempts to build a PC under intense legal pressure with sales engineer Gordon Clark, played by Scoot McNairy, and punk programmer Cameron Howe, played by MacKenzie Davis.

What differentiates Halt and Catch Fire from other AMC period dramas, like Hell on Wheels and Turn: Washington's Spies, would be its focus on character development over plot momentum. The show has all the right instincts of what needs to be focused on at least in the pilot, giving us time to better understand the characters, while also setting up a plot that definitely has me excited to watch.

The characters that most benefit from this narrative style are husband and wife team Gordon and Donna Clark, who is played by Kerry Bishé. What originally seemed like the "depressed husband, nagging wife" dynamic that so many cable shows, like Breaking Bad and even Mad Men, annoyingly present, eventually evolved into a complicated relationship between two  individuals who, while obviously in love with each other, struggle to balance their personal and professional aspirations. This wonderful kitchen scene has Donna and Gordon frankly discussing their relationship, eventually coming to an agreement that usually comes episodes, or sometimes even seasons into a show in order to arbitrarily sustain the drama. It's refreshing to see Halt and Catch Fire not turning Donna into the nagging wife stereotype, while also acknowledging Gordon's self absorption.

Speaking of wonderful scenes, Halt and Catch Fire is packed full of them. A fun scene where Joe and Gordan attempt to reverse engineer an IBM PC shows an ability at presenting really complicated technical processes while still making them interesting to watch. A hilarious scene where  Joe and Gordon attempt to recruit Cameron to their team show that the writers do get how to derive humor from the different cultural backgrounds of the characters, while also successfully setting up an interesting female character in Cameron. The best scene comes at the end, when rows upon rows of lawyers comprising IBM's legal team stroll into Cardiff Electric office towards Joe, Gordan, and Cameron, prompting Gordon to chuckle and say to Joe, "What are you trying to prove with all this?"

It's a question that's supposed to define the entire season, much like, "Who is Don Draper?" in that amazing first season of Mad Men. Yet I'm not exactly sure the writer's are going to be able to answer that question, for one simple reason: Joe MacMillan, at least for now, is a very cliched cable anti-hero  and also the most uninteresting character in the entire show. From his glaringly clumsy and artificial speeches, to his annoyingly emotionless exterior, MacMillan simply feels way too derivative when put against other cable protagonists. 

This segues into a big, potential red flag for the entire season. Whereas it's usually acceptable for one character to be underdeveloped or uninteresting in a television show, it ideally should not be the one that the show's centered around. Admittedly, it's way to early to predict whether or not Joe will be a liability. It's possible that show-runner Jonathan Lisco is able to figure out the character or maybe even reduce his role in future episodes. Regardless, it is an early issue that will have to be overcome in the following episodes.

Yet, I find myself extremely optimistic about the show despite this major issue. Already Halt and Catch Fire has figured out so many of the advanced stuff that many cable shows still struggle with, that I would be shocked if it wasn't able to overcome this basic issue. It may not be perfect, but the Halt and Catch Fire pilot is an engrossing episode that avoids many of the basic traps and pitfalls that befall many cable dramas nowadays.

Rating: 4/5


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