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Feeling Nostalgeek?

Set in the retro floppy disk early 1980s, 'Halt and Catch Fire' is brilliant TV.

By Shannon Rupp 12 Jul 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com. 

The producers who brought us TV's most surprising mega-hits, including Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, have quietly delivered another superb period drama that is for some unknown reason airing under the critics' radar.

Maybe it's because it's summer that Halt and Catch Fire hasn't, er, caught fire? Maybe it's because AMC's show about the Texas Silicon Prairie of the early '80s was confused with HBO's comedy Silicon Valley? (Or maybe that was just me.)

Probably it's because AMC gave critics only one episode in advance. Big mistake. TV criticism is a binge-watching business. Asking critics to review a series based on the pilot is like asking culture-vultures to review a book based on Chapter 1. And then of course, many of us have squirrel brains. We're easily distracted. (Is it Twitter that caused this?) Show me a critic with the patience and note-taking skills to watch a new TV show in real time, and I'll show you a recapper.

So Halt and Catch Fire only crossed my radar by accident last week and promptly sent me binge-watching until the magnificent sixth episode. That convinced me you wouldn't want to miss this tale of a trio of brilliant misfits who are challenging IBM's computer dominance in 1983.

The plot revolves around them trying to build an IBM clone computer that will work twice as fast for half the price, so they can take a run at the nascent personal computer market.

But that's the maguffin. It's really about something we all encounter: what happens when technology paves the way for a new kind of business and the existing companies can't see it?

For employees with foresight, working at a place like Cardiff Electric is like being Cassandra of Trojan War fame. They're cursed with predicting the future to a bunch of maroons who don't listen.

Code monkey Cassandra

The Cassandras at the core of this story include a super-salesman, a computer engineer, and a young code monkey who is even more of a social outcast than usual -- she's a girl. And girl is the appropriate word here, since Cameron (did she adopt a boy's name to fit in?) was lured out of university and has the emotional sophistication of your average 15-year-old.

On paper it sounds like a trio of stereotypes, but that would be to dismiss the subtle writing and phenomenal acting. These are archetypes. We all know of big talents who don't change the world, although we suspect they could have. They end up thwarted by what could be called socioeconomic forces. Or luck and timing. Or maybe they're foiled by their own personal flaws, which turn out to be tragic.

But just as often, they're defeated by the idiots running Troy.

This is the story of a salesman who decides to run a coup d'etat on Hector and the boys. He defies his former bosses at IBM, steals their copyrighted computer chip, and cons the obscure Cardiff Electric into building what he can see is the future: a mass-market personal computer.

The cast is led by the mesmerizing Lee Pace, who delivers the most realistic portrayal of a successful salesman I've ever seen. In the propaganda trades -- marketing, PR, advertising and sales -- the talented people are like good poker players. They play the people, not the cards. Pace shows us this.

His Joe MacMillan is so good at reading people -- and serving them, to serve himself -- that he can even manipulate children he doesn't much like.

Faced with a grimy-handed kid sitting on his pricey Italian loafer while hugging his leg (encased in a thousand dollar suit), Pace allows a flicker of distaste to cross his face. But then he's on to charming her and her sister, allaying their fears of a lightening storm with a pair of flashlights and a load of bunkum.

He puts on a grand performance in a torrential rainstorm, becoming the childrens' champion and waving the flashlights he claims are storm-zappers like light sabres. It foreshadows how he plans to sell those computers to the millions of techno-naifs who don't yet know they're dying to play Tetris and write Xmas newsletters in godawful fonts.

There's a fine line between being P.T. Barnum and being a grifter, and Joe walks it, mostly. He's a confidence man with a Porsche who has enough style for three, but he needs some substance to sell. He finds it in Cameron, who is played by Vancouver's Mackenzie Davis as a sort of idiot-savant. She's a waif with a Walkman strapped to her belt and a headset blasting classic punk.

Her lack of social skills is both poignant and comic. In one of the series' best running jokes, Cameron announces, "I'm stuck" whenever she hits a wall in coding and beds the nearest available man. Usually it's Joe helping her get un-stuck, but she'll settle for a fellow code monkey. It's not personal.

Engineered alcoholism

The final member of this unlikely trio is the Walter White of computer engineers. His wife keeps telling us he's a genius, and there's a tech article he wrote that suggests he might not be as dim as he appears. But Scoot McNairy gives us a guy so passive and defeated that we know exactly why he's on the road to being an alcoholic. And we don't blame him. He's underemployed in a dead-end job, and as Cameron points out, is so used to losing that he doesn't know how to win.

Like his Breaking Bad predecessor he's just desperate enough to cross over into crime now and then.

His wife, who seems to be a better computer engineer, a better parent, and the only competent grown-up who understands what the other three are on about, is the Greek chorus. She's opposed to the whole scheme, partly because she's a mother, partly because she's a shrewd judge of character -- she knows Joe is a hustler -- and partly because she is us. The audience. Kerry Bishé does a lovely job of showing us ourselves. Sure, we're as prescient as the next guy in whatever business we're in, but we're also careful and conventional. Unwilling to risk all the chips on one game -- let alone a single hand.

But don't we all wish the fools would listen to Cassandra and avoid disaster?

That's what keeps us watching. And for anyone who came of age in that era, it's great fun to see dot matrix printers, old-fashioned text-based games and 28-pound PCs. Just looking at that boat anchor made me want to caress the aged and too-heavy laptop on which I watched the show. (If you're a cord-cutter, you can find Halt and Catch Fire in iTunes.)

Halt and Catch Fire is about the people, not the tech, but for those of you feeling nostalgic, AMC put the computer game that serves as a plot point, Colossal Cave Adventure, online. Or you could make your children play it and then lecture them on how much harder your life was.

I also looked up 1983. The only clear front-runner in the personal PC market was the cheap-and-nasty Commodore 64, launched in 1982. It owned the mid-'80s and lost more copy than I care to recall. So Joe and Co. would have been jockeying for position with a small army of computer folk who were all hoping to challenge Big Blue. The show name-checks Steve Jobs, but over at Apple they were coasting on the 1977 Apple II, the first micro-computer for the consumer market. In 1983 Apple unveiled a clunky business computer named Lisa that cost about $10,000 or US$23,700 in today's money. It was a disaster. (Apple's game changing Macintosh was launched in January of 1984.)

Apparently the series title will make sense to those of you who actually learned how to negotiate DOS. It comes from two conflicting commands -- "halt and catch fire" or "HCF" -- which would cause the central processing unit to seize up.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the CPU made me cringe a little and thank The Powers That Be for the touch screen on my smartphone. If nothing else, the show will make you really appreciate what a miracle that mobile is.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)shannonrupp.com.  [Tyee]

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