I like the USA Network show Suits a lot, and although I went to law school, it’s not necessary to know that the legal aspects of Suits are total bullsh*t. The creator of that show has a Wall Street background and not a legal one, and its apparent in the writing, where every case is solved by passing a piece of paper and delivering a vague threat. But Suits isn’t really about “the law,” it’s about two guys swinging their dicks and saying a lot of stuff that doesn’t mean a goddamn thing but saying it with brashness, confidence, and conviction. It’s a fun show. I like it a lot.
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, at least based on the pilot, may be the Suits of 80’s computer dramas.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, and on AMC — where its last two original series were boring misfires, Low Winter Sun and Turn — a lighter touch might be welcome. It’s also a better acted show than Suits, the costuming and direction is better, the visual style is impeccable, and the premise is promising. In other words, it’s Suits disguised as a prestige drama.
Lee Pace plays Joe MacMillan, and he’s the slick, big-talking, dick-swingingest character on the show. It’s the early 1980s, he’s left IBM for mysterious reasons, and he’s taken a job in sales for Cardiff Electric, a fictional computer company that sells systems software. But that’s only a cover. What he’s really after is THE AMERICAN DREAM. In the context of this show, that means building a computer that can compete with IBM, Apple, and Commodore. So, he recruits one of the company’s computer programmers, Gordon Clark (the Scoot McNairy) — a misunderstood genius trapped in a cubicle job at Cardiff — and they attempt to reverse engineer an IBM computer and use that information to build a computer of their own. In doing so, MacMillan dupes Cardiff into getting into the PC Wars against their will.
Meanwhile, Gordon Clark is trapped between his dream to revolutionize the PC industry and the need for stable work so that his wife (Kerry Bishe), who works at Texas Instruments, will get off his ass. He’d tried to build a computer once already, and it ended in failure, and his wife doesn’t want him risking his family’s well being to chase another pipe dream. Mackenzie Davis plays Cameron Howe, and she’s basically a character straight out of Hackers: She’s a sullen goth and a computer prodigy, and after bedding her, MacMillan talks Howe into coming aboard to help build the computer.
You can kind of see where this is going: Three outsiders attempting to transform Cardiff Electric into Apple Computers, and you don’t really need to understand computers to know that most of what the characters are saying, especially MacMillan, is the stuff of Don Draper ad campaigns. MacMillan has a dare-to-be-great situation for everyone, and Lee Pace sells the sh*t out of it.
Halt and Catch Fire is not going to be the next Breaking Bad or Mad Men for AMC, but it may be the best new series the network has launched since The Walking Dead (that’s not a high bar, considering that The Killing currently holds that title). There are a lot of empty pronouncements, and the writers are really trying to push how high the stakes are, but the pilot is thrilling, the three leads are great, and Toby Huss — who plays their boss — is even better in a scenery chewing role. There’s a lot of potential here (and it may be necessary to rewrite the history of the computer revolution to achieve it), and while it could all fizzle out by the second episode, it’s definitely worth checking out.