Review: Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

scene from Halt and Catch Fire
Credit: AMC

AMC series set in the dawn of the PC age focuses on drama, not desktops

Tech history is hot. From the origins of Facebook to Steve Jobs biopics, mainstream media is enthusiastically examining the origins of the computers and tech celebrities who revolutionized the world.

AMC is hoping to capitalize on that trend with its series Halt and Catch Fire, now midway through its first season. It's a period drama in the style of Mad Men, but instead of a New York ad agency in the 1960s, Halt and Catch Fire -- named for code that causes a CPU to grind to a halt -- is set at a Texas computer company in 1983.

When Cardiff Electric, a mainframe software company, hires former IBM salesman Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace, who's also the elf Thranduil in the Hobbit movies), it gets more than it bargained for. With a dream to realize and an axe to grind, MacMillian manipulates Cardiff into the hardware business, directly competing with his former employer. Fortunately for MacMillian, his team includes two unlikely geniuses: has-been engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and college drop-out turned programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the rare woman in a nearly all-male industry.

It's hard not to see the first two personalities as derivative of well-known archetypes of the tech world. Oafish Clark is the show's Steve Wozniak, having developed a revolutionary computer in his youth -- but without a Steve Jobs to help him market it, the computer flopped, sentencing Clark to obscurity. Along comes his Jobs, Joe MacMillan, who manipulates people better than he does pixels. Smarmy, quixotic MacMillian plays to Clark's ego, taunting him with the fame Clark's always felt he deserved.

MacMillian, like any snake oil salesman, uses promises instead of substance to sell Cardiff employees on a grandiose dream: "We just might change the way people work, the way people live, and how they interact with each other. We just might put a ding in the universe." I rolled my eyes at this blatant theft of a Steve Jobs speech... until the next scene when Clark pulls MacMillian aside and says, "You stole that from Steve Jobs."

Mixing up this traditional duo is Howe, a young, spunky savant. Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Howe finds formal education -- or, in her case, any organized institution -- to be a waste of time. She has an uncanny rapport with computers, but her ideas lack the structure and confidence to culminate in anything meaningful. Sleeping with the boss, vandalizing a co-worker's home... Howe is a powder keg designed to make Clark and MacMillian's already explosive situation even more incendiary.

Rounding out the main cast is Clark's wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), a Texas Instruments employee who may be smarter than her husband -- a welcome change from the stereotypical housewife who's only there to support her man -- and John Bosworth (Toby Huss), a territorial Texas businessman and senior VP of Cardiff Electric.

In the first several episodes, Cardiff's software business is gutted by the competition, leaving only a hand-picked crew. MacMillian directs them to design a laptop computer that's lighter, cheaper and faster than the competition's, leaving it to Clark to reconcile these conflicting demands. Howe is sentenced to a "clean room" where she'll design the computer's BIOS, supposedly without seeing the IBM code that MacMillian and Clark reverse-engineered in the pilot, while Bosworth waffles between sabotaging MacMillan's efforts and trying to preserve the company he's worked at for 22 years.

Reality check

Those who remember this era will appreciate that AMC has done its homework. Cardiff's clean-room approach to cloning IBM's computers, a major plot point in the first few episodes, is a clear nod to how Compaq pulled off the same trick. The ruthlessness of the competing companies is also utterly believable, a precursor to the tactics of today's patent trolls.

The setting and props also have plenty of details for geeks to appreciate -- or, in some cases, criticize. My personal experience with that era's technology is mostly limited to the Apple II, so to fact-check Halt and Catch Fire's finer points, I consulted with David Ross, a Web developer and former president of the South West Regional Association of Programmers, a Chicago-based Commodore 64 user group.

The early '80s office environment is spot on, says Ross: "From the Zenith Z-100s on employees' desks to the Commodore 64 on the shelf in Gordon Clark's garage, I haven't seen any props that were out of place."

But technical accuracy doesn't always translate into gripping television, and the show's creators predictably opt for heightened drama. "In the first episode, Joe and Gordon stay up all night reading the PC's BIOS program byte-by-byte using probes and an oscilloscope instead of just dropping the chip in an EEPROM reader," says Ross. "Sure, it would have taken a couple minutes, but where's the excitement in that?" And would the BIOS even need to have been deciphered, given that IBM published the contents in its Technical Reference Manual?

Then there are the mistakes that are as easy to ignore as they would've been for AMC's technical consultants to get right. What little assembly code is displayed onscreen is almost entirely fictitious and rarely the breakthrough its programmers purport it to be. And in the first episode is a 1980 issue of Byte magazine -- but its cover is not that of any actual issue. At least the mockup the show used instead is a reasonable facsimile of the Byte style.

The creators of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire reveal how they brought the 1980s back to life.

But while the '80s computer industry may be the setting, it is not the star. Halt and Catch Fire has enough charisma and synergy to transcend being a show for geeks. It's a character-driven drama that puts three different personalities together to see how they achieve their goals -- some shared, some secret. MacMillian, burdened with daddy issues and battle scars (both literal and figurative), sees people not as friends to be trusted but tools to be manipulated. Gordon and Donna Clark are juggling raising a family and establishing their careers. And anarchist Howe is attracted to dangerous living, which surely includes associating with MacMillian.

"It's the same classic ethos/pathos/logos triad that made the original Star Trek so compelling to people who swear they don't like sci-fi," says Ross. "They've captured the industry at a tense time, when a product's technical merits didn't matter as much as how well the company could secure the best shelf space at stores."

As a born-and-bred geek, I'm naturally a bit defensive anytime some corporate entity tries to capitalize on a stereotype that has historically been stigmatized. I went into Halt and Catch Fire looking for reasons not to like it... but every time I found one, the show surprised me with a reason to keep watching. When the characters are angry or vengeful or deceptive, the show is over-the-top. But when they are thoughtful or clever or vulnerable, it makes us root for these underdogs, believing they might just come out on top.

Halt and Catch Fire can be seen Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC or streamed from Amazon Instant Video.

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