Computers and the Internet have so rapidly changed how we consume our entertainment that it is bizarre how few films and TV programs focus on this domain of technological prowess. There have been a few good ones, though. David Fincher’s superb The Social Network used a ubiquitous website to gaze at the increasing isolation that drives the need for social reinvention, while giving audiences a rollicking good tale of betrayal and cunning business savvy. Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, one of the sharpest comedies to air on television in some time, satirizes the West Coast suburb where the rulers of the roost are preening misfits who are only succeed by tweaking redundant ideas and making millions off them.
While HBO’s comedy remains entrenched in the present, the newest drama from AMC, Halt and Catch Fire, looks at a mostly untold story of the struggles during the early days of the computer business. The pilot focuses on Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a smug computer executive and persuasive businessman – think Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Don Draper. We know Joe is a fierce competitor from the opening moments, when his Porsche zooms through the street and plows into a crawling armadillo, a clear symbol for his race to pioneer the new and sleek over the old and slow. (“I/O” is written by show creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, who are not particularly original with metaphor.)
From there, Joe gives a lecture to a classroom of aspiring computer engineers. His motive is not to illuminate the students, but to find young prodigies who he can persuade to work with him on a special project. From the moment we see Cameron Howe (That Awkward Moment’s Mackenzie Davis), a sneering outcast with Pat Benatar hair who plugs into her earphones as she tunes out MacMillan’s lecture – sitting at the back of the room, no less – we know she will be on board by the pilot’s end. At first, she declines the offer. “I want you to dangle your opportunity in someone else’s face,” she quips at him. However, she is too electrifying an on-screen presence to not expect back.
Joe’s next step is to find an engineer who shares his iconoclastic virtues. He finds that in Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a man who has lost his will to be an innovative tech genius due to his commitment to raise a family. He is a sad sack to his wife, Donna, and wallows in what she calls his “misunderstood genius.” (If anything, the real star of the pilot is Kerry Bishé, who also played McNairy’s partner when they were hostages in the Oscar-winning Argo.) It turns out that Joe liked an article Gordon wrote in a magazine, and wants the office drone to engineer a new machine with him.
The scenes where Joe and Gordon work intricately on assembling their new PC is reminiscent of the meth cookouts from Breaking Bad. Like AMC’s Emmy-winning drama, Halt and Catch Fire does not bog the viewer down in the minutia of their work. We do not have to understand how the parts of the PC works or fits together, similar to how we do not need to be chemistry majors to be dazzled by Walter and Jesse’s cookouts. Nevertheless, we understand the sense of painstaking, precise effort that goes into such a venture. When “I/O” focuses on the work, it becomes thrilling. The executive producers are definitely going to have to look for synthesized New Wave to be the soundtrack for these sessions, in the same way that gritty rock provided the backdrop for meth making on Breaking Bad.