TV Recap: Halt and Catch Fire, ‘I/O’ (Series Premiere)

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Plot: Set in the early 1980s, a former IBM salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies) is hired by the Texas-based tech company Cardiff Electric to bolster their sales corps. However, MacMillan has an idea — he wants to reverse engineer an IBM computer and create a radically new computer that’ll take the industry into the future. He attempts to recruit failed computer designer Gordon Clark (Argo’s Scoot McNairy) and college drop-out Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) to help him achieve his ambitious goal.

You’ve got to hand it to AMC, they definitely do not go to the well of “been there, done that” for the basis of any of their dramas. The zombie apocalypse, 1960s New York ad agencies, the American Revolution, the world of meth dealing and now the personal computer revolutions of the early 1980s.

Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC
Photo Credit: James Minchin III/AMC

Unlike the other shows mentioned, the world of Halt and Catch Fire is probably the least accessible for mainstream audiences. It’s a world steeped in fast-paced, dense technospeak and frankly isn’t as “sexy” as a zombie apocalypse (that might be the first and last time the words sexy and zombie apocalypse appear next to each other).

Yet, in true AMC form, the network makes this left of center subject matter work.

Now, we’ve got to be completely upfront about the faults of this series before we heap praise on it. The biggest problem lies in the fact this series is rife with the technospeak of the computer world. For many, this might be a bit overwhelming and it might lose you at times. If you weren’t born into the computer world you’ll have little clue to what’s going on. What the hell is reverse engineering a computer going to accomplish? What does any of the alphabet soup of computer babble they constantly spew even mean? It can really kill the flow of the pilot for you because you’ll either feel completely lost or you’ll be looking everything up on your computer and miss out on big chunks of the show. This was a problem the failed HBO horse racing series Luck — it was so steeped in its own vernacular that no one had any clue what was going on.

However, if you do understand computers or if you’re like me and were born into the world of computer programming, this might not be a big issue for you. What may be an issue for you is the character of Joe MacMillan (Pace) because he comes off like the son of Don Draper. Yes, it seems that AMC has recycled the enigmatic and charismatic leading man with a mysterious past who believes in achieving some sort of higher, lofty, philosophical and existential goal with his work. Sometimes the similarities are little too much and if you’ve worn thin of the Don Draper character or if you dislike the Don Draper character, the Joe MacMillan character will definitely feel like a retread.

Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

Now, onto the good stuff.

Despite, the similarities of Joe MacMillan to Don Draper aren’t just in the character, but in the performance as well — and that’s a good thing. Lee Pace absolutely owns this pilot episode with a knock-out performance. Pace sells this entire series to the audience, his scenes with every single character are so intoxicating charismatic that you’ll find yourself thinking, “I now have to watch this series every week.” Pace, who many will know from beloved but under-watched shows like Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, may have just found his vehicle to break out into the next level of stardom. (Being in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie doesn’t hurt either).

Scoot McNairy delivers the perfect second banana, straight man performance as the failed designer Gordon Clark. When I first saw McNairy in the film Monsters, I absolutely loathed everything about his performance and pretty much wrote him off as an actor. That was a terrible idea. McNairy has consistently worked his way into one of the most reliable and consistent characters actors out there. Just watch Argo and you’ll see how he delivers the absolute best performance in that film, stealing scenes from Ben Affleck with ease. The series decision to re-team McNairy with his Argo wife Kerry Bishé was a fantastic choice. The two have an amazing chemistry together and Bishe gives a terrific performance as Clark’s devoted yet frazzled wife.

Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC
Photo Credit: Tina Rowden/AMC

The one performance and character that is a bit of an unknown is Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron Howe. The character is a bit cliche for the series — the punky, feisty, tomboyish rebel with a brain. It’s an 80s archetype that feels like the one real antiquated part of the series (and you thought it’d be the old computers and wardrobe). Yet, this criticism might be unwarranted as the series dedicated more time to MacMillan and Clark and their internal conflict than Howe. So, we’ll give her a pass this time around and hope the series can really make her character as strong as her male counterparts.

Halt and Catch Fire is a series that rides on the shoulders of its performers and for the pilot, the performers delivered more than one could ever expect from a debut episode. Yet, the story has to be able to keep up with the performances. Right now, we have the bare bones of what’s to happen in the series and it sounds promising. However, can the race to develop a new computer and the personal conflicts that arise from it keep our interest for a whole season? And where will this series go past a first season? If AMC has proven anything to us is that the answer could be a possible and resounding yes. They made the world of 1960s New York advertising captivating for seven going on eight years, so the 1980s world of computers could do the same thing.

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Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party columns and contributes regularly through out the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and when he was a boy solved a multi-million dollar computer problem by telling his dad to “check the tapes.” Yes, computers had tapes once. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites