SXSW: HALT AND CATCH FIRE 1.01 ‘Pilot’ Review

AMC has become a force to be reckoned with by creating original, and above all else, fantastic programming. SXSW gave audiences a sneak peek at AMC’s newest project, “Halt and Catch Fire,” which looks like it will also join the growing list of critically-acclaimed/unanimously popular AMC shows.

Back in the 1980s, computers were huge hunks of plastic and metal, taking up large portions of your desk that could otherwise go towards holding candy. We’re talking the dark ages, people! Back before the internet existed as we know it. It’s hard to believe people ever functioned without the internet, but it supposedly happened. The show is set during this time and introduces audiences to three technology geniuses as they try to create a personal computer all on their own that will contend with IBM. 

The title, “Halt and Catch Fire” refers to an old-school computer command that will take control of your computer, overloading its processes, and make it “catch fire,” leaving you unable to regain control before its software blows a fuse and ceases to function. Sounds to me like this title might offer some great foreshadowing for what’s to come.

Now, the premise may not sound all that intriguing (and the first ten minutes or so of the pilot consists of a bunch of people spouting off computer terminology, discussing what is and what could be), but the characters drive the story and make even the most boring technology talk seem interesting. This episode quickly grabs you by the metaphorical balls and has you hanging on every spoken word thanks to the well-developed characters.

Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) gets a great introduction by plowing through an armadillo that wandered out into the road. Dude’s so focused he doesn’t brake, doesn’t blink an eye, or even look upset as he stares at the dead animal still stuck to the front of his car. He’s a guy so focused on his destination that he doesn’t brake for anything that gets in his way. Woo! We’re going to have fun with him! He’s the one with visions of new kinds of PCs, so he comes up with a brilliant plan to lure the right people in to join him and manipulate a computer company into funding them and protecting them legally. As his plan unfolds throughout the episode, it becomes more and more extraordinary and fascinating, and is also becomes more evident that MacMillan is a bit of a sociopath. Lee Pace knocks it out of the park as MacMillan, selling his unyielding charisma and ideas for tomorrow, and most of all, soothing everyone with a voice as rich and low as buried treasure.

Surrounding MacMillan is a well-crafted group of characters (and an awesome cast to portray them, to boot). MacMillan recruits Gordon (Scoot McNairy) first, who is floundering in depression and alcohol from trying to build his own computer prototype… and failing at it. He and his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe) are characters you don’t see very often. They followed their dreams, failed, and are now trying to decide what to do. Writer/creator Chris Cantwell talked about how he wanted to explore what kind of people that situation creates: “What if Gordon and Donna build something in the garage and fail miserably? What kind of person is that when they have to leave their dream behind, and what kind of chip do they have on their shoulder when they move forward? What kind of fear do they carry with them?” I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out more. That kind of failure isn’t looked at much through media, making these two scintillating. “This is a show about second chances,” Cantwell added.

The third member of the computer building party is the angry, brilliant, rambunctiously chaotic computer engineer Cameron (MacKenzie Davis), who serves up a bit of comedy and promises to play the wild card whenever things need mixing up. She is quite the breath of fresh air amidst all the other serious characters.

This was an excellent pilot episode. The characters’ personalities, issues, and dreams are fully established through great writing. The drama ramps up over the course of the episode, ultimately leaving you feeling uneasy, but excited as things close up with a flood of thirty IBM lawyers descending on them like the Nazgul going after Frodo. And even though the show is set in the 80s, it’s not hitting you in the face with ’80s-ness every time you turn around. In some era themed shows. You can see all kinds of classic items that time period is known for, or the most popular songs from that year are playing. “Halt and Catch Fire” take a more subdued approach, the creative team explained, trying not to insert those memes and songs. Instead, they searched for music that helped develop the mood, like everyone should, without distracting from the show by using highly recognizable/pop songs.

I can’t wait to see more of “Halt and Catch Fire,” as well as pretty much anything else AMC has to offer. Because, let’s call it like it is, AMC’s original programming is blowing all of the other networks out of the water right now. You can halt and watch the series premiere of “Halt and Catch Fire” on June 1, 2014 on AMC.