Amazon Prime TV review: Halt and Catch Fire Season 1
Ivan Radford | On 06, Jun 2015Reading time: 6 mins
With Halt and Catch Fire Season 2 on Amazon Prime – and Season 1 available to download on Google Play and iTunes – we boot up the first season of AMC’s computer drama.
Halt and Catch Fire: an early computer command that forced all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Once executed, control of the computer could not be regained.
It may sound like an odd name for a TV show – the series even has an introductory title to explain it – but it turns out to be a smart fit for AMC’s drama, which follows the power struggles at a small Texas computer company in the 1980s. The company in question? The fictional software firm Cardiff Electric, who wouldn’t know how to build a computer unless someone walked in one day and told them. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happens when Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) walks in after defecting from IBM. His proposal? Reverse engineer the rival’s machine to create their own that is faster and better.
It’s what everyone did in them days, we’re assured, an attitude that seems somewhat fitting for a show that could have done the same with other, more successful hits. But if Halt and Catch Fire feels like it has cloned its parts from period companion Mad Men, it emerges as its own sleekly designed model.
That’s mainly because the components for Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ creation are so precisely calibrated. The cast process the script with several gigahertz’ worth of efficiency. Lee Pace’s Joe is a thing of beauty, a glossy salesman with a brooding presence that makes it easy to see why the actor has stolen scenes in so many films.
In Pace’s hands, the manipulative, two-faced snake becomes surprisingly sympathetic – something that’s made possible by Scoot McNairy’s turn as depressed engineer Gordon Clark. After failing at launching his own PC, he jumps at the chance to have a second shot. The pair are perfect foils, as manically obsessed as each other and determined to succeed.
The ensemble is completed by Kerry Bishé as Gordon’s long-suffering wife, Donna, and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe, a young coder with the attitude to match her smarts. Halt and Catch Fire’s achievement is allowing all four characters to get equal screen time over the first season’s 10 episodes, allowing the quartet to collide in increasingly uncontrollable ways.
The visuals are rendered as finely as the performances, something that should come as no surprise once you’ve read the impressive list of talent behind the camera: from The Secret in Their Eyes director Juan José Campanella and Vikings’ Johan Renck to Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Pierce and Better Call Saul’s Larysa Kondracki, the helmers manage the tricky task of finding excitement in sequences of people sticking things on motherboards, or meetings around shiny, wooden tables.
That office environment, shot with such flair, is one of several things that recalls AMC’s Mad Men, but the writing by Zack Whedon and others (overseen by exec story editor Jamie Pachino) reveals the similarity to be purely superficial. On the surface, Joe immediately appears like Don Draper, a guy who can play other people and pitch ideas to full rooms with panache. But while Jon Hamm’s small-screen icon is someone who sees through the marketing crap, a cynical loner in search of what he wants, Joe emerges as someone who buys into what he shills. Pace’s earnest eyes betray McMillan’s corporate exterior. He doesn’t just tell his colleagues that they can change the world by creating something new: he sincerely believes it.
A disapproving father at IBM adds some more rote motivation to his drive, but Joe remains an intriguing enigma, only letting his guard down as a fiery relationship forms with Cameron. At the same time, Howe’s sassy backlash at the men around her – coupled with Joe’s own Smart Aleck arrogance – brings some smirks to the seriousness. The result is a well-designed balance of comedy, sexiness and drama, which remains gripping.
Most of all, Halt and Catch Fire is defined by a sense of tragedy: like its unhappy group, a lingering sense of failure surrounds events. It means that the finale is underwhelming, rather than encouraging; the fact that the last episode is titled “1984”, bringing to mind that year’s infamous Apple advert, says it all. These people aren’t just fighting to change the world, but to stay relevant in one that is accelerating every day. That underdog context, though, is at the heart of the show’s personality; the focus starts on the office politics, but the question soon becomes whether the company will even continue to exist.
The season’s structure is dictated by the inevitable momentum of the production line, from the PC’s conception in a garage to selling a prototype at an industry exhibition. Along the way, the programme throws up some glitches, as the smooth loading of ideas and plot twists crashes, thanks to diversions into melodramatic storms and Cabbage Patch Kids; a tighter, eight-episode length might have avoided any blips in the code. But for every mistimed reboot, there is a character beat that brings the operating system back up to speed.
As the suspense builds towards the completion of their computer, each person is nudged to the edge of their patience. Scoot’s George is unveiled to be as unhinged as Joe’s desperate outsider, while Donna’s own intelligent wit opens up a world of other, tempting opportunities. It’s testament to the show’s script that the two women ultimately end up as the main stars – a streak that subverts the male-dominated traditions of the computer and gaming industry. As the clever women making everything possible, Davis and Bishé bring heart and humour to proceedings, but they also add a crucial sense of optimism and hope.
“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing,” says Joe, early on. In an age of gadgets and designer electronics, Halt and Catch Fire’s topic is certainly fashionable. But at the show’s heart is a processor powered by a timeless fact: computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the people behind them. The parts may look unoriginal at first glance, alongside Mad Men’s glistening iPod and Breaking Bad’s Netflix, but that central principle makes Amazon’s exclusive acquisition an engaging show. It takes time to warm up, but Halt and Catch Fire is definitely worth switching on.
Halt and Catch Fire is available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.