I just watched the pilot episode of AMC’s new show, Halt and Catch Fire, which airs in Mad Men‘s Sunday 10pm slot. I was pretty intrigued by the slew of previews I saw while watching this spring’s half season of Mad Men (and by the way, since when does a season start in the spring of one year, take nearly a year hiatus, and then end in the spring of the following year?). I definitely recognize that a show about building a new computer in the early 1980s has the potential to be incredibly boring. There was a lot of good stuff in the pilot as well as some potentially bad but I definitely wasn’t bored.
One of the annoying things about the show is the arrogant genius behaving badly trope. Lee Pace plays the first arrogant genius, Joe MacMillan. When Joe is introduced to us, he is driving his Porsche very, very fast and runs over an armadillo, which is our first clue that he’s in Texas. Joe makes speeches full of the vision thing and gets annoyed when his fellow computer salesman, Gordon, tries to talk about mundane details like free installation. He is a master manipulator, which I found annoying, but he has some mystery in his background, which I found intriguing. I look forward to finding out what he’s been doing since his disappearance from his IBM job a year prior to the events of the show. The second arrogant genius is Cameron Howe, a woman who is a senior at an engineering school, where, for some unknown reason, Joe is a guest speaker. She is the misunderstood genius that no one pays attention to because she is so far ahead of her time. As Mackenzie Davis portrays her, Cameron reminds me of Watts, the Mary Stuart Masterson character in Some Kind of Wonderful, complete with anger at the world and a punk soundtrack playing on her Walkman. But she’s a genius so we forgive her her quirks. The final genius is not as arrogant as he is depressed. Gordon Clark, played by Scott McNairy, was the inventor of a failed computer who has been reduced to selling other people’s computers. When we first meet him, he is drunk and his wife has brought their kids to the jailhouse to bail him out. He drunkenly reminisces about the failure of his computer–when they tried to turn it on to demo it, it wouldn’t turn on. But he is also a visionary, having written an article for Byte magazine about open architectures for CPUs. Joe quotes that article to convince Gordon to come work with him on his new project.
Although I found the genius trope annoying and over the top, there was a lot about the show that I enjoyed. I really enjoyed the history of the show. Even though it’s fictional, it reminded me of a lot of things that I haven’t thought about in years. Byte magazine is one of those things. I loved that magazine and was a regular reader in the 1980s. It seemed completely believable to me that someone might have written an article for the magazine that inspired someone else to take a big chance on trying something new and different. Other mentions in the show that brought back memories: CP/M, SCP, the dominance of IBM (International Business Machines) in the computer industry of the day and the joys of playing Centipede at the arcade. I also liked the reverse engineering scene although I can understand that if you don’t have a tech background, that scene might have been confusing or boring or both. That’s probably why it’s kind of glossed over. Most viewers probably won’t be too excited about watching guys using an oscilloscope to record pin voltages and then recording the contents of 64K of ROM to get the BIOS instructions in assembly language. Just writing that sentence makes me smile. It’s a very cool scene.
I am a little torn by the title of the show. On the one hand, I think it’s cool that the title refers to an assembly language instruction, HCF. Assembly is a low-level computer language which means that there is a very low level of abstraction which means the programmer is very close to writing code in binary, the zeroes and ones that the computer understands. It is really geeky to program in assembly these days as most software is written in languages that contain instructions at a higher level of abstraction from binary. HCF is an instruction that halted operation of the computer by instructing it to repeat the same operation over and over. The “catch fire” part of the instruction comes from the story (myth?) that some of the wiring in an old computer heated up so much by this repetition that it actually caught fire. Nice. On the other hand, “halt and catch fire” seems like an obvious metaphor that sometimes the best laid plans blow up in your face. Bleh. In fact, metaphor in this show is pretty obvious. At one point, for example, when it looks like Gordon won’t work with him, Joe pulls out a bat that has the inscription “Swing for the fences” and so he does, literally, by hitting a ball over and over until he breaks a window. Not so subtle.
A couple of other things made me roll my eyes as well. Most of the bonding/conflict stuff between Cameron and Joe, for example. The trick quarter, the conversation about VLSI, and the stupid sex scene all seemed too superficial and lazy. But I understand that first episodes are tricky. The characters have to be introduced and established quickly and so shortcuts are often taken. I just hope the show relies more on the cool stuff once the story is established. I will keep watching to see what they do with this fairly promising start.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.