Sunday, 20 July 2014

Are you plugged into HALT AND CATCH FIRE, or have you hit Escape?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

You've probably hit the Esc button, if AMC's ratings are any indication (having dropped from 1.19m to around 0.7m by mid-season). I can't see this new drama being renewed, as its quality reflects the disappointing ratings. Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C Rogers (who have no real experience running a TV show, hence why Southland's Jonathan Lisco's in charge), HALT AND CATCH FIRE charts the creation of a personal computer by Cardiff Electric, a software company located in the Silicon Prairie of Texas during 1983.

The whole endeavour pivots on creating a cheaper, faster, and lighter PC to beat market leader IBM at their own game. It's the dream of flashy executive Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who worked for IBM and arrives at Cardiff Electric with a "masterplan" largely hinged on inspiring the people around him—including gifted engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), whose early passion for creating a game-changing machine is reawakened by Joe's charisma; and prodigious 22-year-old maverick programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), whom he also develops a complex sexual relationship with.

Mad Men's ending next year, so AMC perhaps hoped Halt and Catch Fire would be its natural replacement. It has similarities to Matthew Weiner's Emmy-winning drama, as both concern a "hidden industry" during a booming time period (1960s advertising becomes 1980s home computing), and with placing an inscrutable alpha male at its centre (ad man Don Draper becomes salesman Joe MacMillan). Unfortunately, not only is outmoded computer engineering difficult to make look sexy and interesting in 2014, the writing's all over the place. It feels like an indie film stretched beyond its narrative means. The pilot had definite promise (it could have been the first act of a decent low-budget movie), but nobody appears to have any idea what the ensuing nine episodes would be. Or that's how it feels. Consequently, most much of the weekly drama has been built around trial-and-error issues with the development of the company's IBM knock-off, and meetings to secure funding and third-party help where Joe's powers of persuasion are put to the test.

Whenever the show isn't doing either of those things, it fills time with increasingly abstract weirdness and peripheral goings-on. In episode 7 ("Giant"), Gordon suddenly went crazy and dug a hole in his back garden looking for an old computer he built, an AIDS-infected ex-boyfriend of bisexual Joe turned up for a design meeting, the search for a Cabbage Patch Doll during a storm was a major sub-plot, and there was a bizarre scene of erotic electro-stimulation. No, seriously.

I would say it's become hilariously bad, but there's such a pall of beige seriousness over everything that it's hard to find joy in how poor it's become. There are occasional moments when Joe MacMillan feels like a fascinating character, but more often than not he's a ridiculous figure. Gordon had potential, but has become rather one-note and tedious already. Mackenzie Davis is a bit of a find as Cameron, but beyond her brash attitude and rebellious streak, the writing's letting her down. Toby Huss (King of the Hill, Carnivale) is always good value, here playing Cardiff Electric's earthy boss, dragged by the scruff of his neck into the computer-making business. I think part of his appeal is the fact he's the only character allowed to demonstrate some humour, in what's become a worryingly straight-faced drama.

Halt and Catch Fire is one of those shows where a strong pilot secured a season order, and misleadingly strong early reviews, but it's not working out long-term. It's a surprise how quickly it's gone from promising to bad, and I'm worried the whole thing will, well, halt and catch fire in the finale. Sometimes a problematic show has a strong enough premise and characters to get itself renewed (allowing writers the opportunity to reflect and fix the issues), but I'm not sure Halt and Catch Fire is one of them. It's just TOO much of a mess, too early in its lifespan, and the ratings and online buzz are weak enough to prove most people aren't interested in an insider's look at the 1980s computer boom. Or, more accurately, the creative team haven't given us good enough reasons to get interested about this settting.

However, it does have a wonderfully funky, retro opening credits sequence...

... so kudos to the people who designed and scored that.