‘Halt and Catch Fire’: Texas in the geeky PC revolution

Hank Stuever (c) 2014, The Washington Post. The boxy, early-’80s personal computers that serve as the central obsession in AMC’s dullish new technonerd drama “Halt and Catch Fire” (premiering Sunday) will in one sense be understood by observant TV watchers to be the descendants of the late-’60s computer equipment installed as a bulky metaphor during the latest season of “Mad Men.”

Fourteen years separate the machines, from 1969 to 1983: At SC&P, the fictional ad agency of “Mad Men,” the computer takes up an entire room and delivers the promise of faster market research, while heightening a vague paranoia about its capacity to outperform human instincts with precise data. Its eerie hum triggered psychosis in one employee, who had to be carted off on a gurney, like so many prophets and naysayers.

AMC would also presumably like for us to accept “Halt and Catch Fire” as a link to what “Mad Men” offers in terms of being a dynamic and moody period piece that depicts an intriguing moment in our shared history of consumerism.

Don Draper and company fought tooth and nail — and waged office politics — to sell us flattering and illusory ideas about cigarettes and hamburgers and air travel. The proto-techies of “Halt and Catch Fire,” on the other hand, work in the bleak cubicle farms of the “silicon prairie” of Texas, where they are in a much darker and nastier race to reverse-engineer the IBM personal computer and thereby steal some of its dominance.

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It’s all very exciting, except that it isn’t. “Computers are not the thing — they are the thing that gets us to the thing,” proclaims the show’s main character. Agreed, sir. What’s difficult to see here is the show that gets us to the show.

“Halt and Catch Fire” (the title comes from early coding lore, referring to a self-sabotaging computer command) may very well have a compelling story to share with us, but for some reason, the network made only one episode available to critics. (That same episode has also been available for anyone to watch online the past few weeks.) In the competitive genre of today’s premium TV dramas, one episode barely scratches the surface.

Which leaves me very little to report, other than to note the rather obvious fact that “Halt and Catch Fire” suffers from a common case of style over substance. As style goes, it does offer some deliciously subtle throwbacks, preoccupied with the same post-disco, pre-Internet gloss and grody-ness that informed the films “Argo” and “American Hustle,” as well as FX’s “The Americans.”

As for substance, I’ve become increasingly skeptical that the making of computers can ever become the grand drama we so clearly wish it to be. Frankly, stories about the high-tech revolution work so much better as comedy — look no further than HBO’s “Silicon Valley” for proof of that. What’s most vexing about the “Halt and Catch Fire” pilot is that one gets no sense of its theme or meaning: Are computers good? Is this a story about the beginning of everything or the end of us all? Is stealing IBM’s work in fact a noble pursuit that led to our modern technotopia? Or is the show just one more rumination on our capacity for greed?

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Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillan, a mysterious and criminally inclined former IBM salesman who blows into Dallas in 1983 and talks his way into a sales executive job at an electronics supplier called Cardiff.

MacMillan is orchestrating a master scheme here, luring a Cardiff engineer named Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to painstakingly decrypt for him the innards of IBM’s PC.

Gordon, who once tried and failed to market his own personal computer, resists MacMillan’s swagger at first, and then relents after MacMillan dangles a manifesto Gordon once wrote for Byte magazine, appealing to his suppressed sense of ego. After a tedious weekend in Gordon’s garage messing with chips, wires, code and everything else I’ve forgotten from Mr. Gavula’s TRS-80 computer class, eureka, they’ve found it.

Before long they also find themselves in legal trouble, and this, too, is part of MacMillan’s plan: The threat of a costly settlement with IBM more or less forces the executives at Cardiff to make a personal computer that they can legally call their own. For this narrative to stand up in court, Cardiff needs to hire another engineering wiz to complete the new machine.

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MacMillan has a plan for that, too, recruiting Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a rebellious University of Texas student who spends most of her time playing arcade video games and shutting herself off from the world with her Walkman headphones.

Of course, by “recruit,” I mean that MacMillan has already had rough sex with Cameron in the back room of the bar where she plays Centipede, mere hours after he gives a guest lecture in her computer science class. “Halt and Catch Fire” seems to sincerely want to make room for women in a high-tech origin story, but Cameron winds up coming off in the first episode as just another iteration of the resentful femhacker/punk stereotype. (It doesn’t help that Davis takes her petulant dialogue and treats it as though she’s been cast in a “Mad Max” sequel, if that “Mad Max” sequel had been written by John Hughes.)

Much more consideration and dimension is given to the character of Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), an engineer who fell in love with Gordon during their days at Berkeley and who once shared his aspirations, but who now just wants him to hold down a job and be a good father to their two daughters.

As for the men, they are just how cable TV likes them: flawed and difficult and mostly unlovable. As Gordon, McNairy is certainly on point, making us feel the burden of his engineering ennui and desire to build something revolutionary.

Unfortunately, a great deal of “Halt and Catch Fire” (at least in the pilot episode) hangs on Pace’s hot-headed MacMillan — a debonair, Porsche-driving snake in GQ suits who is as unbelievable and oversold as some dude from an old Bret Easton Ellis novel. His sexiness is sparkless; his edginess is layered on so thickly that it borders on an unintentional James Spader parody.

All that said, “Halt and Catch Fire” bears watching — until something else bears more watching and you reprogram the DVR. It’s perhaps one more indication of some faulty code at AMC, where the ambition for unexpected television has paid off (most notably with “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and a recent season of “The Walking Dead” that was easily that show’s best work to date), but also results in some letdowns, such as “Low Winter Sun” and, sadly, a misfired first season from the Revolutionary War espionage drama “Turn.”

You can’t demand originality and complexity from a TV show and then walk away from it after one episode. But you also aren’t obligated to sit there and hope it eventually grabs you. Halt? Catch fire? Control-alt-delete? Or just sit here on hold and wait for tech support?

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Halt and Catch Fire

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.