I must confess that I have a dirty, dark secret: I don’t get weekly recaps.
I’m sorry, I know I write for a site that promotes TV shows and that I should probably be into weekly episode recaps, but you know what? I just don’t get the point. To my mind, you’re in one of two camps, you either watch a show and therefore know what happened, or you didn’t and you would rather watch for yourself. I know I’m weird and that I will most likely be horse whipped and flogged (in that order) by the writing staff for confessing this, but I needed to get it off my chest.
(NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: We do not align ourselves with this writers views on recaps, but we do love the crap out of ‘Halt And Catch Fire’ so we shall graciously allow him to continue.)
That being said, I wanted to tell all of you about a little show called Halt and Catch Fire. It’s a drama set in the 1980s about a small support firm that builds its own computer. Now now, PLEASE don’t nod off. I know you really want to. There’s probably a good chance you’ve already smashed your head into your keyboard (virtual or otherwise), but stick with me here. Before you start asking me what could possibly be interesting about the tech industry in the 80s and why I’m wasting your time, let me try and get you hooked; because you should be hooked. I missed this show last year when it aired and thanks to AMC’s generous streaming policies I was able to catch up on the whole first season last month before the second season aired May 31st. Here are my thoughts on the show as a whole.
As I mentioned earlier, Halt and Catch Fire is a drama centered on a fictitious company in Texas which primarily handles system software. The show is lead by Lee Pace and he gives a commanding, if somewhat flamboyant, performance as the show’s mysterious main character. Next up is Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) a cubicle farm worker/engineer with no future beyond plugging away at his nine to five and taking care of his wife and kids. The last of our main cast is a college student, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), an incredibly immature punk rock coder who, along with being young and inexperienced, is (I will restate for emphasis) very very immature. The start of the pilot shows all three in their natural habitats – Joe, a successful IBM man, getting ready for work in a sharp suit; Gordon, chugging to work in his jalopy; and Cameron, doing crazy 80s college kid stuff. (Mostly just listening to a Walkman and looking like a twentyteens Hipster.) By the end of the first episode, Joe has turned all their lives upside down by deftly manipulating Cardiff Electric into making an “IBM Clone”.
To understand the culture of tech in the 80s I am going to stop and give you a brief (BUT FUN!) history lesson. It’s hard for us to imagine what computing was like in the 80s. In 1983, when the show starts, Windows first version (1.0) is still 2 years away. Apple is just starting out as well. In 2015 we are surrounded, nay, we are drowning in choices. With dozens of computer manufacturers and operating systems to choose from, as well as mobile OS’s and devices becoming more powerful and ubiquitous, it’s almost impossible to imagine that back in the 80s there was really only one major brand: IBM. International Business Machines was the standard everyone strove towards. They were massive. Everyone wanted to be them. They did both software and hardware and were the kings of computers in the 80s.
That’s what makes the idea of Joe forcing Cardiff Electric into making a computer such a big deal. Today’s tech world is so fragmented and there is so much choice I’m having a hard time trying to find a modern day parallel to help you wrap your head around it. The best I can come up with would be Apple trying to come out with a product to fight Pringles chips. No one makes curvy chips like Pringles.
ATTENTION: The history lesson is over; you can wake up now.
Please don’t let my historical computer rant fool you. This show is not just a bunch of 1980s tech porn. While it can get kind of technical, it is still a drama focused on people and the way they interact with each other. Aside from the three more main characters there are several other cast members that make the show shine. One of them, is Joe Bosworth (Toby Huss. Don’t let his looks or accent fool you; dude is freaking smart. There’s also Gordon’s talented and very intelligent wife Donna who, on top of taking care of their two little girls works for Texas Instruments. Donna especially plays several big roles in helping Cardiff Electric get their new computer off the ground.
That computer is where a lot of the drama originates. Joe has tricked the leadership at Cardiff into building this computer and, now that they are stuck with it, he has some revolutionary ideas (for the time) to help them stand out. This is where Gordon and Joe always come to blows. Gordon, an engineer, sees Joe’s request for a portable computer (the word “laptop” hasn’t been coined yet) that only weighs 15lbs as impossible and insane. Joe however, sees the potential in Gordon and his team to build something great. Where he falls down is in his lack of ability to properly lead others.
All the while, Cameron is downstairs building what she thinks is going to be a revolutionary new operating system. Her head full of theoretical knowledge and her goals for tech still light years too far ahead, she will also end up clashing with everyone. Her young age and sometimes hostile personality will cause major problems for Joe and Gordon.
Not all the drama is within the team either. Circumstances are always changing, forcing the Cardiff Electric team to constantly adapt. The team is forced to reevaluate what they are doing and how they’re doing it. This causes MASSIVE disruptions and forces the characters into vicious conflict with their goals and with one another. That’s what I love about this show. Not the tech, not the period clothes or music, but the way the writers back their characters into a corner and explore their personalities. At first, some of the team members, like Cameron or Joe, have actions that seem completely unmotivated by normal logic or reason and seem to do things simply for shock value. Over time the writers will let out small pieces of their past not only explaining their behavior but also causing you to care about them. You really connect with them on a level that you don’t expect to.
May 31st marked the start of the second season on AMC and we are now two episodes into it. It is much better than last season and is really finding it’s groove. All the major players are back and the show seems to have thrived in it’s time off. The writing is even better, the cinematography is improved, and the story as a whole already has me gripped. While I enjoyed season one, it took me several episodes to really get involved.
All in all I’d say this show is incredibly watchable and while it may not be on the same level as Mad Men of Breaking Bad (but frankly, what is?), it is still a fantastic drama with it’s own style and story to tell. For those that may feel put off by all the computer jargon, don’t be. There isn’t much of it and you’d be throwing away a perfectly good watching experience because of it.