Halfway through the first episode of AMC’s new drama Halt and Catch Fire, two characters reverse-engineer an IBM PC. Hardware whiz Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, Argo) and his partner, a slick salesman named Joe McMillan (Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace) de-solder chips, check pin voltages, and transcribe memory locations, eventually ending up with the assembly-language code that makes the computer tick. It may not sound like compelling television unto itself, but like the meth cooks of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman it's a slick and riveting sequence in a pilot full of outstanding moments. — and it could be setting up the network’s most unlikely hit yet.
Set in the heart of the Texas tech scene
"My dad moved my family down from Chicago, Illinois when I was about six weeks old in 1982," says writer and series co-creator Christopher Cantwell. We’re in a post-production facility in Los Angeles, and Cantwell and his writing partner, Christopher Rogers, have taken a step away from the editing bays where they’re overseeing the completion of the show. The duo met while working in social media marketing at Disney before joining forces to write — Halt and Catch Fire was the first project they actually sold — and within five minutes it’s clear why their partnership works so well. Cantwell is the rapid-fire instigator, going off on conversational tears at a moment’s notice, while Rogers is laid-back and thoughtful, speaking in measured bites.
"There was a lot of computer opportunity in Texas at the time," Cantwell continues. His father, he says, worked as a salesman at a software company in Dallas. It was a unique time for both Texas and the industry itself — ground zero for the PC-cloning revolution that upended IBM’s dominance — yet the "Silicon Prairie" had never really been explored in film or television before. Given the dynamics and stakes, the duo seized upon it as the setting for their new show.
A tense, ticking-bomb energy drives the story forward
Halt takes place in 1983 at the fictional company Cardiff Electric. Joe McMillan is the mercurial sales guy, a former IBM employee intent on talking his way into Cardiff despite the company’s modest size, while Gordon is a Cardiff engineer haunted by the failure of a computer he designed several years ago. Together they manipulate the Cardiff execs into helping them start a new business: creating and selling IBM PC clones. Rounding out the cast are Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe, a 22-year-old punk-rock programmer hired to bring the project to life, and character actor Toby Huss (potentially best known as The Wiz from Seinfeld) as steely Cardiff VP John Bosworth.
It’s niche subject matter to be sure, but the pilot for Halt has a tense, ticking-bomb energy that propels it forward, thanks to both the stylish flair of director Juan José Campanella and the exceptional cast. Lee Pace’s Joe is a master manipulator, using Steve Jobs-style showmanship to hide the widening cracks in his own psyche, while Scoot McNairy brings even more nuance as Gordon. Rather than the easy stereotype of a geek engineer or heads-down builder, Gordon is a man that seemingly has the perfect family — though it does nothing to help him shake the angst he feels over his past failures.
Halt and Catch Fire is a story about failed men and the opportunities they see to reimagine themselves — in this case, their canvas happens to be technology. It’s thematic territory AMC has explored before with shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and like those modern classics the key is honest writing and performances. The secret weapon, however, is Kerry Bishé as Gordon’s wife Donna. It’s a role that could have easily been turned into the caricature of the disenfranchised housewife, but Halt has higher aims. Donna is an engineer, juggling a job at Texas Instruments while caring for her two children, and doesn’t push for Gordon to give up his dreams as much as challenge him to be engaged with his family at the same time. While it’s unclear where the show intends to take the couple, the pilot establishes a complex dynamic with plenty of room to grow.
Halt and Catch Fire is debuting the same night that Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley finishes its first season, and while the shows couldn’t be more different, Cantwell and Rogers do think we’ve reached a cultural moment that is driving mainstream interest in all facets of technology. "I think in the same way that the movie Wall Street was made as a cautionary tale about the wrong way to do business, I think there are people now that look at a movie like The Social Network and say, ‘This is the new American dream,’" Rogers says. It also couldn’t come at a better time for AMC, which lost Breaking Bad last year and just ended the first half of Mad Men’s final season. While Better Call Saul is scheduled to debut later in 2014, there’s a prestige drama gap in the network’s schedule, and the Revolutionary War drama Turn isn’t filling it just yet.
Halt and Catch Fire may spring from the unlikeliest of subjects, but a high school teacher cooking meth hardly seemed like a zeitgeist-defining concept either. By using the backdrop of a technological revolution as a way to explore complex people and family dynamics — rather than the other way around — Halt keeps the focus on what makes the very best television come alive and thrive: the characters themselves. It’s like Joe tells Gordon: "The computer’s not The Thing," he says. "It’s the thing that gets us to The Thing."
Halt and Catch Fire premieres on AMC this Sunday, June 1st, at 10PM / 9PM CT. The pilot episode is available to stream online now.