TELEVISION REVIEW: "Halt and Catch Fire"

AMC's newest addition to its "prestige drama" lineup, Halt and Catch Fire, is ultimately a mediocre attempt at creating a 1980's Mad Men.  Replace advertising with computer software, and that seems to be the show's jumping-off point.  Yet where Mad Men, a vastly superior show, quickly established a series of fascinating characters within an elegantly stylized 1950's and 1960's setting, Halt and Catch Fire stumbles right out of the gate with its squandering of its talented actors on inconsistent, thin characterizations, its poorly thought-out and written dialogue, and a noticeable lack of the drama and mystery it so desperately wants to create.  
(amctv.com)

Essentially, Halt and Catch Fire follows Don Draper-wannabe electronics salesman Joe McMillan (played by Lee Pace, who really deserves a better project), hardware designer and troubled father Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and young, testy software prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) at the fictional Cardiff Electric in Texas as they try to design better machines than their competition (mainly IBM) and sell them. After watching the first two episodes, I have ascertained little else about what will drive the plot, because it's certainly not the characters. As it has been presented, Joe McMillan's secret past, which is hinted at so clunkily and pseudo-forebodingly that I nearly laughed out loud, cannot live up to all that is being promised.  

One of the fundamental flaws in Halt and Catch Fire, compared to the show it wants to be, Mad Men, is that where Mad Men was able to demonstrate its characters' successes and failures in the field of advertising easily and directly, by creating ads that we, the audience, could judge for ourselves, the average television audience watching Halt does not know computer software design or coding.  The average person spends a lot more time being flooded with advertising and having to judge ads for themselves than they do, say, reverse-engineering an IBM PC, which is the conceit of the first episode.  As the audience, we therefore have to accept a character's "brilliant" coding skills as the truth. The premise of the show relies on telling, rather than showing, which is a definite weakness-- an error in the show's design, if you will. 
Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark and Lee Pace as Joe McMillan. (amctv.com)

Additionally, while it is progressive of the show to include a female protagonist in its portrayal of 1980's Texas computer culture (not to mention including such a portrayal of a capable woman in tech in a world where even today female developers and coders face insidious and institutional sexism) Cameron Howe is difficult to root for or even like because, unlike Peggy Olson of Mad Men, who starts as a mere secretary and is our point of entry into the show, Cameron is just a girl who we must accept is good at coding, and thus cannot really prove herself to the audience.  Peggy begins her rise from secretary to copywriter at the ad agency Sterling Cooper because she uses the fact of her gender to come up with better ways to advertise products for which she, a woman of her time, is the demographic. 

Yet Cameron has no such hook to make us root for her--she starts off as a coding whiz, and it seems she will stay that way.  It seems that Halt will not address the extraordinary fact of her gender the way Mad Men made use of Peggy, and the way Peggy played on expectations of her gender in order to succeed. It makes you wonder what kind of statement about gender politics, especially in a world as fraught with sexism as the tech industry, that Halt is trying to make. Mad Men is clearer on that front as it demonstrates and condemns sexism, and is a better show, even in its early days, for that fact alone.  What is Cameron's character, other than a punk-attractive, spunky coder?  "What will Cameron's narrative arc be?" is the question that I'm not sure the show itself even knows at this point. 
Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe. (amctv.com)
  
In fact, what will anyone's arc be?  Why should we care?  All of the characters need a lot more fleshing out.  In contrast, Mad Men early on created a variety of characters at Sterling Cooper who interacted with one another in different ways; each interaction revealed, bit by bit, something about the characters' personalities.  On Mad Men, the secretary that Cameron interacts with would have implications of a rich inner life even after a short appearance.  Yet thus far in Halt, only the three main characters have any significant amount of lines, much less actual characterization, and supporting characters such as Gordon's wife Donna, as well as the trio's boss at Cardiff Electric, could already have had so much more to them than they do after these two episodes--especially Donna, who is a computer design expert in her own right.   Scoot McNairy's tender, deeply sad engineer Gordon fares better, yet is reduced to playing off the inscrutable Joe.

Despite Lee Pace's best efforts, the central character of Joe McMillan makes little sense.  His motives are unclear, and his violent reactions to events, especially in the second episode, contradict what little we know about him thus far.  Personality and background mystery are not the same thing, and they are not interchangeable, which Halt does not seem to understand yet.  While he is clearly in the mold of the sexy, swaggering, mysterious Don Draper, the center of Mad Men, Joe's mystery seems less actual mystery than poor writing and heavy-handed foreshadowing.  Don Draper had to be a mystery in part because of his past, but also because of all the affairs he conducted outside of his life as a suburban father, while we know so little about Joe other than that he ran away from his former job at IBM.  Is he just a salesman? If so, how does he know so much about building computers?  At the end of episode 2, an IBM salesman trying to woo Joe back tells him that that once they know who he really is, Joe won't want to stay with Cardiff Electric in Texas. Yet I have a feeling that whatever mystery they manage to embroil Joe in, it just won't match this incessant buildup. 
Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace. (amctv.com)

On the technical side, the visuals of the show are pseudo-dramatic and gritty but mainly just come off as ugly and ill advised. It is aesthetically unpleasant to watch Halt, with its jarring blue-greens and unnecessarily dim lighting. The production values are also ill-advised: the foley is often too loud, and the camerawork is sloppy and at times hard to follow.  The dialogue of the show is also hard to listen to; it veers between the overly banal and rather overwrought speeches that no one would actually ever say aloud. 

Ultimately, while the pilot had some potential, Halt and Catch Fire is difficult to watch and hard to enjoy.  The fault lies not with the actors, who are giving it their all, but with the writing and the way the characters interact.  I can only hope that the show-runners indeed have a plan for Joe's mystery as well as the indistinct characters of Cameron and Donna, or it will not be worth following.


Comments

  1. EEEK. Sounds like just plain "Halt" on this one.

    I never watched Mad Men though so maybe as a stand alone it would be entertaining?

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