In the US: Sundays, 10/9c, AMC
Oh, what a shame. After two episodes that might have led the viewer to believe they were looking at AMC’s new Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire has fallen at the third hurdle.
Set in Texas’s so-called Silicon Prairie in 1983, the show looks at the PC revolution from the vantage point of four people, aiming to go into the PC clone business: a mesmerising salesman (Lee Pace), a punk girl programmer (Mackenzie Davis), a tired hardware engineer (Scott McNairy) and his more talented wife (Kerry Bishé). However, much like Pace’s character, the show promised a lot up front and is now failing to deliver on its promises.
The first episode gave us the set-up, with the near-sociopathic Pace turning up at the fictional Cardiff Electronics with a stunning game plan for how he’ll force the company to take on IBM by entering the PC cloning business, recruiting the brightest and best - McNairy and Davis - to do his bidding. And despite the show relying on an audience that can at least understand what’s involved in reverse-engineering a PC BIOS chip - and maybe even actually be able to do it - it was an excellent and engrossing piece of work. Pace was stunning as the visionary Steve Jobs of the piece and the script was thoughtful and clever.
Episode two continued this, never quite doing what you thought it was going to do. After a slow first half, the episode really took off with a glimpse of the terrifying business tactics IBM used in the 1980s. Pleasingly, the female characters got some rounding out, particularly Davis who got to show off at IT - and proper IT, not the dumbed down TV IT you get on something like NCIS. Pace continued to astonish, too, giving us a barely contained force of nature hiding behind the bland face and intonation of a born salesman, but who steals and has few ideas of his own.
Unfortunately, episode three gave us the first script written by anyone except show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C Rogers, and it appears they might be the key to the show’s success or otherwise, because the stack of cards came tumbling down. Not completely and to a certain extent, the show was realistic enough to show that genius thoughts don’t necessarily arrive the first time, but may need time, effort and surprising sources for inspiration to be produced, but certainly most of the show’s main attractions got dropped - or at least there weren’t the dialogue and character moments needed to distract from the potentially flawed architecture.
It didn’t exactly help that the episode separated off the characters so they barely got to interact with one another or that Bishé’s character was the only one who got a chance to excel. Meanwhile, Pace’s masterplan was revealed merely to be “Let’s stick it to my old employers”, rather than anything with any real insight into revolutionising the PC industry. McNairy just moped for an episode and was squeamish over an
obvious metaphordead bird. And Davis, channelling Tom Cruise in Risky Business, danced around an office all night, looking for inspiration, before heading off with the least convincing punks since Ralph Fiennes in Prime Suspect.
Then, of course, we got that scene, in which Pace (spoiler alert) seduces the husband of a potential investor of whom he disapproves, purely to put her off the deal. It’s a surprising character moment, presumably meant to indicate just what he’s prepared to do, but it comes out of nowhere and massively spins the show away from the plausibility it’s been trying to provide for the previous two episodes.
The show still isn’t without its charms and obviously could still recover. Any show that starts an episode with Gary Numan’s ‘Our Friends Electric’ is clearly full of potential awesome and we could yet see a reason why we should be routing for these characters, other than because they’re the ones the show is about. We have not one but two technically gifted female lead characters - that’s 50% of the main cast - both of whom are fully drawn out people. And when the show actually deals with the technical side of things, surprisingly, it’s extremely compelling, even if it’s just discussing how to make a motherboard smaller or reduce its heat output.
Without wishing to sound like Chris Morris in The IT Crowd, what’s needed is for the disparate characters to act like a team - presumably that’s the end game but the producers are taking their time getting there, and although this is an AMC show, speed is somewhat of the essence, given the nature of the subject matter and the show’s own plot requirements. We also need to be able to root for the team and as most of the characters are already aware, there’s literally nothing exciting about their clone - this isn't Apple, this is Compaq. No one was excited by a Compaq PC, not even Compaq. They’re bored, so we’re bored.
So here’s hoping that from episode four, with presumably (spoiler alert) Bishé’s joining of the team, we’ll be heading for more interesting territory, because a bunch of people griping while producing a dull office product is just not a fun affair, no matter how much empty sex, weird scars and sick wildlife there is along the way. On the other hand, we might just get an episode in which someone forgets to back up their data. Let's hope the producers pick the right option.
Barrometer rating: 2
Rob’s prediction: Hopefully the show can recover but anything more than one season is looking unlikely at the moment