Review: AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' tries to be more than just another 'Mad Men' clone
Late in last night's episode of AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," the show's hero, computer salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), tries to dismiss a competitor who's never experienced the joy of creating something(*). Joe's rival points out that they're both in the computer compatible business, just trying to copy IBM, and therefore neither can brag much about their flair for originality.
(*) As you might expect, this column will have some spoilers for the season to date.
Having apparently bested Joe with his own portable IBM clone, he says, "You tried to be good. We just had to be good enough."
It was one of many meta exchanges in the penultimate season 1 episode of "Halt," a series that has not only been reverse-engineered from past cable drama hits, but that seems acutely aware of that fact.
So Joe is essentially a 1983 version of Don Draper: a mystery man in expensive suits whose flair for oratory disguises just how damaged he is. His chief hardware engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) is a less homicidal Walter White, hunched and resentful of the ordinary life he's had to live since his last business idea fell apart. Just about every character on the show has one or more analogues in other dramas of the past 10 years on AMC, HBO, FX, etc.
It's just a matter of the execution. As Roger Sterling imitators go, for instance, Toby Huss' good ol' boy executive John Bosworth is a pretty terrific one. And the surrogate father relationship Bosworth developed with Mackenzie Davis' loner coder Cameron Howe offered a poignant window into an alternate "Mad Men" universe where Roger and Peggy improbably became friends. And Gordon's wife Donna (Kerry Bishé, who also played McNairy's spouse in "Argo") has transcended the usual tropes of buzzkill wives on this kind of show; not only has Donna often been supportive of Gordon's reckless dream to risk everything to build an IBM clone called the Cardiff Giant, but every time she's disagreed with him, he's been presented as the lunatic and her as the reasonable person suffering for the deep emotional toll these big projects takes on him.
Joe, Gordon and Cameron have spent most of this first season figuring out how to make the Giant work, just as "Halt and Catch Fire" has been trying to carve out an identity beyond "that show that's vaguely like those other shows you liked on this channel." Veteran drama producer Jonathan Lisco ("Southland") was brought in after the pilot to help out newbie creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, and it was easy to see the creative team feeling their way through the show and its characters. There were big jumps in both time and characterization — Cameron went from homeless and unsocialized to a domesticated, effective team leader with the flip of a switch — and there were stretches in the early and middle parts of the season where the show seemed as lacking in direction as the computer project it was dramatizing. There were some compelling performances (particularly by Bishé, McNairy and Huss) to pull the viewer along, plus a strong depiction of computer culture circa '83, but on the whole it was a show whose viewers kept telling me they didn't know how to feel about — and I was usually inclined to agree. (There's a reason I am only writing a full review 9 episodes into a 10-episode season.)
Part of the problem is the way the creative team put so much of its energy behind Joe, who's easily the least compelling of the show's four leads. Pace is a terrific actor with a distinctive energy, but there have been too many elusive anti-hero types exactly like Joe in the last decade. And the need to keep his backstory and motivations a secret from other characters and the audience led to lots of Joe mind games in the early episodes that kept the other characters divided and confused. It wasn't until the last couple of episodes — when the entire company was put in jeopardy because Bosworth embezzled from a corporate account to keep the Giant project alive, followed by Gordon stealing the prototype so that he, Joe, Cameron and Donna could take it to the Comdex computer expo to sell it themselves — forced the characters to work in unison that "Halt" actually began to feel like a TV show, and not just a collection of oblique character sketches. And even then, the story was very reminiscent of something "Mad Men" alone has done several times with the various agency restructurings and heists.
It's easy to understand why AMC would want a Compaq-style clone of its more successful shows. The channel has had one big critical hit ("Mad Men"), one massive commercial hit ("The Walking Dead") and one show that was one or both of these things at different times ("Breaking Bad"). Everything else they've tried in the scripted drama vein has either been a modest success ("Hell on Wheels," plugging along for a fourth season starting this Saturday night) or a quick failure ("Low Winter Sun," which may ultimately be best known for inspiring a running gag on "The Good Wife" about the clichés of cable anti-hero dramas). So for now the way forward seems to be with spin-offs (both "Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad" have upcoming ones) and other shows like this that strongly evoke the shows from AMC's glory days.
And "Halt and Catch Fire" has turned out to be more satisfying than "Low Winter Sun," or "Turn," or "The Killing" (which won't stay dead, and returns for an alleged final season later this week on Netflix), or several other of AMC's recent attempts. The ratings are low, but I'd be happy to watch more if it got renewed, especially now that so much of the show has seemingly been debugged.
That said, AMC made its reputation in the first place on shows that felt much more original than this. "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" each had influences, but they were also instantly their own thing. "Halt and Catch Fire" plays very much like the Giant project, where Gordon and Cameron figured out how IBM's BIOS chip worked, then worked after the fact to find ways to make the new project seem like their own.
One of those ways was Cameron's plan to give the Giant an interactive operating system that would have a personality and ask its user questions about what he or she wanted to do. In Sunday night's episode, under pressure to make the Giant faster and cheaper to fend off a competitor, Gordon stripped out the operating system in favor of MS-DOS.
"You took it out!" wailed Cameron. "Everything that made it unique!"
"We had a problem," Gordon told her. "Now we have a product."
AMC clearly wanted a product after some of its recent struggles, but the ratings for "Halt and Catch Fire" suggest the larger problem — that their audience wants something both great and original — remains. At the end of the episode, Joe gets a look at an early demo of the first Apple Macintosh, and the dismay on his face is that of a man who thought he was a visionary before realizing he's just another hack. TV has had plenty of imitation Drapers in recent years, on shows like "Magic City" and "The Playboy Club." "Halt and Catch Fire" is better than those — and has gotten much better as it's gone along — but Joe and the AMC audience would likely both be happier if he was just his own man.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org