Halt And Catch Fire Series Premiere Review: “I/O” (Season 1, Episode 1)

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The actors are all very strong, and may be the engine that keeps Halt and Catch Fire chugging along despite some tired character tropes. However, the series’ title, which comes from a computer command that forces all of the instructions to work at once and causes the system to stop working, is yet another metaphor for the needs of the show’s three characters. All of these personalities have different dreams and motivations, yet their entanglement in one project could escalate and self-destruct if things get too heated. The triangle at the head of the show is still likely a few episodes away from forming into a rich dynamic, though.

In this pilot, Joe is not very sympathetic. He’s a corporate type who has little to his personality, except a propensity to act like a sneering, self-serving maniac behind his sunglasses, tinted in a red wine hue. He takes Gordon’s parking spot and then lashes out at him when he speaks up during a meeting. “The window of opportunity is closing,” Joe says. “This is about you finally having the confidence to walk out on the ledge and know you’re not going to fall.” Meanwhile, Gordon’s change from a lazy, aimless father who will not help around the house or even fix his daughters’ toy to a model of paternal support in only a couple of scenes is too tidy.

As they currently stand, Joe, Gordon and Cameron are all intelligent people who do not have much tolerance to work together. There is certainly potential for this series to grow, especially since the ensemble is so fine. However, Davis’ entitled rebel, McNairy’s damaged genius and Pace’s slick suit are currently pretty defined to their limited characterization.

While it is now common courtesy for a new, ambitious series to grab a filmmaker to direct the pilot, “I/O” director Juan José Campanella, who was behind the The Secret in Their Eyes, may not have been the best choice. Very few of the Argentine director’s virtuoso tricks behind the lens of his Oscar-winner arrived on the set of this pilot. In the choppy sex scene between Cameron and Joe, which seems more of a way to test the limits of basic cable than advance the story, Campanella films the encounter with a tilting camera and lots of shadows in the frame, which disrupts the sexual energy of the scene. Much of the pilot is also shot in muted spaces filled with browns and grays. With the exception of some out-of-date technology and a marquee advertising Return of the Jedi, the show does not feel as period-specific as The Americans, another series that takes place during the early 1980s.

Regardless, the pioneering days of commercial computers is a cool backdrop that ought to intrigue audiences who are similarly absorbed in the marketing mantras of the 1960s with Mad Men. These early years were troubling times for the computer business; as Cameron explains, it was “an industry built on people ripping off other people’s ideas.” Yet, true to this copy-and-paste format, the characters on Halt and Catch Fire may not be singular enough to invest an audience used to a network bringing us true originals like Walter White and Don Draper. While there is promise, the drama is too programmed to stand out in a dense television marketplace. The actors do try hard to make the high-tech drama more engaging, but for a series about punks and pioneers, Halt and Catch Fire seems too safe to ultimately, ahem, catch fire.