Halt and Catch Fire: Does AMC's New Drama Compute?

Halt and Catch Fire Series Premiere Recap

The early days of personal computing, though important for their contribution to our increasingly technology-filled lives, certainly aren’t the sexiest possible subject for a cable drama to tackle.

All that code talk! People staring into screens! Green letters on black backgrounds! Can such a cerebral topic – which serves as the backbone of AMC’s newest series, Halt and Catch Fire — make for compelling TV?

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I’ve got some thoughts on the matter, but first, a brief recap of Sunday’s premiere:

It’s the 1980s, and Joe MacMillan (a much-missed Lee Pace, of Pushing Daisies fame) has recently left a job at IBM with a kinda-illegal dream: to take the one, tiny part of the PC that’s proprietary to his former employer and reverse-engineer it, eventually making his own and giving the tech giant some competition on the home-computer front.

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MacMillan is a slick, Members Only type of guy who lands a new gig at Texas’ Cardiff Electric without ever showing the boss his resumé. Soon, he’s trolling the company for an engineer to help with the sneaky side project; he lights upon Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, Bones), who’s so depressed after the failure of his own passion project that he numbly stumbles through days at work and nights with his wife (Kerry Bishé, Scrubs) and daughters.

Soon, the two men are forking over cash for an IBM PC, which they systematically dismantle and map over a long weekend in Clark’s garage. Once the pair has the IBM code in hand, they enlist punky college student Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) – whom Joe “scouted” with abandon in a bar’s back room —  to help make the magic happen.

Two slight snags: IBM isn’t psyched that Joe, who just up and left his job one day, is working for another firm… and the tech giant is ready to throw down in a courtroom over his little reverse-engineering project. Through a complicated series of legal maneuvers, Cardiff Electric realizes that Joe has forced its hand: The Texas company must move forward with a plan to build a PC or else lose absolutely everything to IBM, whose army of lawyers arrive as the episode comes to a close.

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Oh, and that title? “Halt and Catch Fire” is a computer-code joke, referring to the command that causes a computer’s central processing unit to stop working (but not, y’know, actually burst into flame).

I suspect those who are very interested in the inner workings of PCs will find a lot to nerd-out about in Halt and Catch Fire‘s premiere episode; for viewers like me, who like the magic box to just work at the press of a button, the plot sometimes lags.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way Mrs. Howe comes around to support her husband’s dream so quickly; I’m also looking forward to see how Joe, Cameron and Mackenzie clash as they pursue tech notoriety. Plus, much like in FX’s The Americans, the drama’s ’80s soundtrack kinda rocks. In short: I haven’t yet reached the blue screen of death on Halt and Catch Fire, but I’m keping tech support on speed dial nonetheless.

But what did you think of Halt and Catch Fire? Grade the episode via our poll, then hit the comments to back up (get it?) your choice!


Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Bryce says:

    Lee Pace is so beautiful. The eyebrows are so killer, crafted by God himself. So glad he’s back on TV, and in what seems like a very quality show too!

  2. David4 says:

    Lee Pace will always be of Wonderfalls fame for me. :)

  3. forwarddad says:

    Liked it didn’t love it but will watch again.

  4. Jimmy says:

    Lee Pace’s God-crafted eyebrows notwithstanding there wasn’t anything all that interesting about this episode. A slow-pace series is fine, but you need and interesting story and interesting characters and I found neither in this first episode.

  5. Azrielen says:

    I fully admit I am a geek, but even besides that I found the characters very compelling. Joe is such a mystery, and Gordon and Cameron have a lot of potential. I have become mildly obsessed with this show even before it official premiered on TV. Lee Pace being generally amazing and charismatic certainly helps.

  6. Kayla says:

    I solely watched for Lee Pace, but my programmer fiancé was nerding out with extreme and utter joy the entire time.

    • As another programmer… I’m in agreement with your fiance… been waiting for this show since I first heard about it. Just wish it were getting better ratings, I don’t want it cancelled. So many things happened for an entire decade after the IBM PC hit the market, would be nice to see the dawn of the information age fully dramatized. K++

  7. Ram510 says:

    I enjoyed the pilot and thought it was well done. I could tell there were many parts to the story that would’ve been awesome had I known more about computers, but I could tell the writer paid close attention to detail which is much appreciated with a period piece. This could be another winner for AMC

  8. Joey Padron says:

    Like it, pilot episode was good. Looking forward to see more of show.

  9. M says:

    The idea of Lee Pace in a power suit is almost enough for me to sell my soul to Time Warner again for cable.

  10. Bill says:

    An intriguing basic idea; off to a good start; good characters, acting, and set designs.

  11. Mr Zero TV and the SV team out on the coast says:

    A nice start to the series – we’ll see how things go from here. The attention to detail in the show was quite good (machine language code shown in the hex-decimal [all those ‘F’s and ‘B’s] print-outs Joe & Gordon are working on in the garage). Nice! All the IBM ‘suits’ showing up at the end of the episode – ‘the dinosaur walk’ as we call it. We wonder if Joe is frightened or bemused at all the middle-aged drones and lawyers parading into the CE office – all of them there to get the free meals and hotel bar drinks on this east-coast to Texas trip. Pathetic bunch that should engender more sympathy than fear.

    We like Bishe – we wondered if she could pull off the engineer-vibe of working at TI, but she does – well done KB! Wow, that’s the actress from Scrubs-2? – wow.

    What we (still) don’t like about the series and hope they remedy over time – the Cameron Howe character (however, we do like Mackenzie Davis – but the writers need to give her better material to work with). That character is not well written [thus far] in our opinion. First, there were indeed many, many fine women engineers back in the mid-1980s, but few looked like ‘Hunger-Games’ clones (expected Jennifer Lawrence to pop up here) with that attitude. That initial encounter with Joe – the ‘scouting moment’ – come on writers, you can do better than that.

    And in that classroom scene, where Joe is asking the students what type of hands-on knowledge they have of various technologies – chip design/VLSI, software programming, OS hardware-software experience (for BIOS, etc.), Cameron had it all! Really? She’s combining of the technical talents of engineers at Intel, IBM, HP and Microsoft, all at the age of 20+? Really? Even the guy in that class who kept his hand raised – nonsense. All that experience, across all those technologies, without having even worked in the industry, still in college. Really?

    So, we’ll be watching episode 2, and hoping they keep the storyline planted firmly in reality, and we do hope the Cameron character becomes more ‘1980s-technology focused’ and less ‘Jennifer Lawrence Hunger Games’ clone. Come on writers, this is AMC, not ABC-Family Channel, CW or Bravo. Know your audience. If you want to write for the CW, go call MP and his team over there – I’m sure they are looking for more ‘Reign’ clones.

    • Fabe says:

      Hey, don’t pick on Reign. That show is awesome.

      • Mr. Zero TV says:

        Message received – I’m glad you like Reign. I tried to watch the pilot, but didn’t make it to the end. Glad someone out there likes that show. I’m not in the right demographic for CW any longer, but that’s my bad, not the fault of the current group of CW shows.

    • PJ says:

      Haven’t watched it yet but mainly from the previews this was my biggest fear. Like the story wasn’t enough to stand on with just the 2 guys so they needed to bring in some super hero, eye candy type. Sigh…I find this era fascinating and do not need embellishment just to bring in the young male demo.

    • forje says:

      the hex code on the protoboard was a D, not a B
      B is 1011, D is 1101

      perhaps that was done intentionally just to irk people.

      • Mr Zero TV says:

        Good catch – I haven’t watched the show a second time yet, and my eyes didn’t move fast enough on the first try Sunday night to catch the ‘D’ [13] and the 1101, rather than what I thought I’d seen, which was a 1011 [11].

        A lot of nice detail in this show – I hope they can keep it up.

    • veniascott says:

      I love the show, but i do agree with you about Cameron Howre right now I am not liking her, we will see as the sesason goes on, the actress is great, but the character seh plays is not a hit with me.

  12. Alan says:

    i am partly interested in this series as a learning exercise, i just finished a course in computer science but ive never learned anything about the inner workings of a computer or the history of its development, and on that side im totally hooked because it feels like im learning loads about what goes into making a computer (at least from this time period).
    as for the drama side, its a pretty good start, had the usual expected pilot drawbacks but it set up enough of a premise that looking past that isnt a problem. the actors are all people ive seen in other things in supporting roles that ive thought could handle something bigger so im glad to see them stepping up, especially scoot mcnairy.
    on a final note i forgot how unwieldy assembly code was but this brought back all those horrible memories from those operating systems classes i sat 4 years ago, i think im going to be having nightmares again.

  13. JAO says:

    Good, intelligent show! I’ll be back.

  14. KPrewitt says:

    Just for once, couldn’t we get some historical or technical accuracy along with our generational triumphalism? The tone-setting justification offered for the title shouldn’t stretch credulity with anachronistic intelligent-agent instructions that “compete for superiority” (That depiction is kind of infantile-sounding, and is a long way to go just to make a metaphor); and imho the story should be bringing to life, with plausible deniability where necessary, events that really happened somewhere and that really have shaped our own present. Getting the styles and the music right is not enough. People are hungry for the truth — not just about how people dressed or the music they listened to, or even the human condition, but about how the world we know now actually got to be the way it is. Period dramas like AMC’s misinform needlessly, when they could do so much more: They could actually make us smarter, not merely keep us entertained.

    • N tTVf says:

      Interesting point – I like the wording you used here – “how the world we know now actually got to be the way it is.” To be able to tie in the past that a particular show reveals, and making some parallels to how that has effect us and the way we live today. I think we’re in agreement here – that’s what makes a period drama on TV really hit home – drawing those ‘then’ and ‘now’ parallels.

      In my mind, Mad Men has done a terrific job in drawing those ‘then’ and ‘now’ parallels – tribute to the fine work of MW. You noted that AMC period dramas could do so much more – I agree ‘Halt’ may not meet our expectations, however, do you feel the same way about Mad Men? Do you feel that show has not done a particularly good job of showing those parallels? I’m too young to really know what went on at an Ad agency in the 1960s, so I’m just assuming [and drawing conclusions from what I’ve read about that era] that it is hitting the mark.

      In the case of “Halt” and the technology industry, I’ve lived some of that era, so I can tell first hand when the show ‘Halt’ is on target, or when it is going astray. Mad Men, that’s a different story – I don’t fully know that era.

  15. Ehud says:

    It has potential. I like the Joe as a character.

    – they weren’t called “a PC” or “the PC”. They were “personal computers” (PCs) and the leading ones were Radio Shack (Model I for schools, Model III for businesses). Apple was NOT a player. The Apple II and Apple IIe were not anything anyone would have aspired to. The IBM PC was just another player in 1981.

    – open architechture is an expression that didn’t come to be nor did “clones” come to be until long after many manufacturers were making “IBM PC compatible systems” (what we now call PCs or PC clones).

    – As Forje correctly pointed out the hexadecimal (another commenter said “hex decimal” — look, if you don’t know what it is don’t make up stuff, ok) 1101 is D not B.

    – The quarter-on-a-string trick didn’t work with 1981 arcade games. It worked with prior-generation (non-electronic) grab-a-stuffed-animal-with-a-claw games. The writers/directors are confusing quarter-on-a-string (never worked with arcade games) with taped-dollar-bills (worked on arcade change machines).

    – TTL voltage levels do not include “-5”. ever. You can have +5. You can have 0. You can even have 2.7. You don’t get “-anything”. Ever.

    – “One of these chips has the BIOS”. Really? Yes, it’s the BIOS PROM. Apparently nobody told the writers/directors that. It’s easy to spot – it has the label on it that says so. That’s because that’s the one chip that frequently needed replacing/reprogramming because it was so primitive. (Nowadays we can program it directly. back then you needed a PROM or EEPROM programmer — which is a hardware device.)

    – The PC they disassemble has a modern PSU. Back then the power supply was part of the system and not an “individual piece” you could remove or exchange.

    – There’s nothing wrong with the buzzwords (VLSI, etc.) used in the class. That was what was current, not future.

    – An oscilloscope mapping DC voltage levels doesn’t display a waveform. It displays a straight line. (+5VDC, 0VDC, etc.)

    So much more to say, but who cares.

    • Mugambo says:

      Just glancing at your comment I’ve already found two glaring errors. First off, quarter on string worked on most Midway cabinets and cabinets that used similar coin mechanisms. Didn’t work on Atari cabinets which is what she uses it on, but worked great for many hundreds of Pac Man, Space Invaders, and Galaxoian in my day.

      I still have an IBM case from 1983 that has a disting seperate PSU very similar to what they showed.

      I’m sure I could find more errors in your comment if I cared to take more time. I don’t.

  16. venia says:

    I like this show, I am in love with it, and I hope AMc stick by it the way they did MAD Men. OOOh Lee pace is hoooot!! I have read he has been on tv befor but he is a new face to me, and I like what I see, wow what a hottie. Not only great eyebrows (as some people have notice) but a good kisser as well. Keep up the good work Lee.

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