Friday, May 30, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: Halt and Catch Fire

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 10:00 PM on AMC

Has any cable network ever had a faster fall from grace than AMC did?  It has only been about six years since the "AMC is the next HBO" narrative started revving up around the rise of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but it feels more like 60.  The Killing was the last time that I watched a full season of one of their shows, and my patience has grown so thin with their programming that I didn't even make it to the end of the pilot of Turn.

Thankfully, Halt and Catch Fire is much better than the network's recent fare, and it's probably their best pilot since The Walking Dead's in 2010.  The story centers around Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), an oily tech pitch man who finds himself restless with the state of the industry and hopes to make a major move to shake things up.  When he begins working at a new company, he enlists the help of fellow employee Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a once-hungry computer builder whose ambitions have been dulled by family life and legal trouble.  The pilot is essentially a "getting the gang together" episode -- the ragtag team is later rounded out by Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a fresh out of college coder -- but it does so in such thrilling fashion.  If there's one thing about it so far, it's that the show has style.  The use of 80s music is more glitzy than say, The Americans, but it's all in tune with the themes of the show.  Ultimately, it's about operating outside of the rigid rules set by the business structure of the tech world.  "Halt and Catch Fire" may seem like a silly and wordy title at first, but it refers to a technological term that reflects what the main trio of renegades are trying to do in sparking a computer revolution.

What makes the prospects even more hopeful is that creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers circumvent pitfalls that lesser shows would be more than happy to tumble right into.  They do this with Gordon's wife, Donna (Kerry Bishe), who also has a job in the tech industry, adding stakes to her husband's decision to risk his career by joining up with Joe.  It's a move that subverts the nagging wife cliche effectively: she doesn't complain because of a lack of understanding -- that she does understand makes her hesitance about Gordon's decision all the more important.  It would have also been easy for the show to drown in technical jargon (or just be incredibly boring, like Turn), but they smartly make the story about the power moves that are put in action as a result of all that jargon.  Halt and Catch Fire may not wind up being the show that ushers in a second era of quality television for AMC, but it certainly ends their streak of complete misses.

Grade: A-

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