We’ve had an Oscar-winning film starring tech (The Social Network); a hilarious sitcom about the tech industry (Silicon Valley); and now we have the Mad Men for tech.
Or at least, a show that desperately wants to be Mad Men.
Halt and Catch Fire, a new AMC miniseries premièring on June 1, centers on the personal computing revolution of the 1980s. But don’t expect to hear much about the drama between Apple and Microsoft, like the 1999 TV film the Pirates of SIlicon Valley. Instead, the show focuses on a hotshot sales executive at a fictional Texas computer reseller, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who dreams of building and selling an IBM PC clone. Big Blue, be damned.
After forcing his company to get into the PC clone game, MacMillan teams up with a brilliant software engineer, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Clark believes in the future of open hardware, but is still reeling from his own failed computer project. Along the way they pick up Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a punk coder who represents the younger generation.
MacMillan, played by Pace like a cross between Steve Jobs, Don Draper, and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, is the man with the dream, while Clark is the man with the skills. The show is pretty clearly trying to build a Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak dynamic.
Halt and Catch Fire has all of the trappings of modern cable dramas like Mad Men and Breaking Bad: Dark and distinctive cinematography; an anti-hero lead; and inexplicable sex scenes (the first of which occurs within a few minutes of the first episode). But unlike those shows, this one fails to find much real drama in MacMillan’s quest.
Instead, it’s built up almost entirely out of tired clichés. MacMillan is a jerk, but somehow we’re expected to root for him since he’s clearly smarter than everyone else in the room. Clark is a reluctant genius with family issues. And their boss is a hard-ass who has it out for both of them.
Clark’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) repeatedly treats his desire to build a truly open computer as something like an addiction that’s tearing the family apart. But while there are ways to convey that dramatically, it just comes across as unintentionally hilarious.
The show’s first episode starts with an explanation of the term Halt and Catch Fire, which refers to an instruction that can disable a computer’s CPU. But even with that, it’s a baffling title to non-techies (and I’d bet even geeks today are unfamiliar with the term).
Halt and Catch Fire makes no excuses for its technical roots, and it does little to assist the audience. That can be good and bad. It’s refreshing to see a mom (Clark’s wife), fresh off a hard day of work as an engineer at Texas Instruments, rip open a Speak & Spell and explain the circuitry to her daughters. But the show also tries, and fails, to make an uber-geeky sequence involving an oscillator and machine code exciting.
While Mad Men manages to sell the magic and artistry of the perfect pitch, Halt and Catch Fire simply throws technical details at the audience and expects us to find them meaningful. The show has a lot to learn from David Fincher’s The Social Network, which, despite its historical inaccuracies, manages to make us feel the rush of code and the ideas behind it. Even HBO’s Silicon Valley manages to make tech interesting, while at the same time being a surprisingly effective mainstream comedy.
I already see plenty of techies giving Halt and Catch Fire a pass because it’s so damn geeky. But I think we should expect more from our tech media. If Mad Men can make advertising interesting, there are certainly better ways to present such a momentous period in technology.
This review is just based on the show’s first episode, so it could get better. But with only 10 episodes to work with, Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t have much time left to catch my interest.