If, out of habit, you clicked over to AMC after Game of Thrones last night, then you found yourself watching a show that appears set on becoming That ’80s Mad Men. The network surely knew what it was doing, replacing Don Draper and Sterling Cooper & Partners with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and his new Cardiff Electric colleagues; Halt and Catch Fire, like Mad Men, is a period workplace drama set in the industry that came to define its era. In the 1980s, that field wasn’t advertising but computers — and that’s only part of the problem.
We’ve seen the tech world dramatized, successfully, in movies like The Social Network. And just last night, Mike Judge’s startup-skewering Silicon Valley wrapped up a very funny first season. But AMC is trying to slot Halt and Catch Fire into a very specific subgenre, one that doesn’t exactly come tailor-made for a bunch of geeks trying to build a computer: the brilliant-yet-dangerous white male antihero drama.
That we have a typical Golden Age of TV protagonist on our hands (and that we’re in Texas) is clear from the show’s opening scene, in which Joe hits a damn armadillo while Miami Vice-ing around in his BMW. He is Don Draper meets Pete Campbell, with a twist of Patrick Bateman for variety: a cocky, slick sales bro who trades quips with a hotshot, punk-rock computer science student he’s scouting for some mysterious job… and then, yes, fucks her in the back room of an ’80s-tastic video arcade before taking off to talk his way into a job at a small computer company called Cardiff Electric.
Once Joe has secured that position — by waving a W2 that proves how much money he made for his former employer, IBM, in his new boss John Bosworth’s (Toby Huss) face — his endgame comes into focus: he’s here to recruit Gordon Clark (Scott McNairy), a onetime visionary who long ago lapsed into a life of family, alcoholism, and general mediocrity, to help him reverse-engineer an affordable alternative to IBM’s machine. Having witnessed a demo for Gordon’s failed creation, the Symphonic, and read an article he that contained the ostensibly life-changing wisdom, “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing,” Joe is convinced that his new colleague is the ideal partner. Although Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), is rightfully wary of Joe and worried for the family’s security, she eventually observes how the project is re-energizing her husband and gives him her blessing.
The problem is, not only are Joe and Gordon in risky legal territory, but Cardiff isn’t interested in competing with IBM. The twist is that none of this comes as any surprise to Joe. He’s planned this out from the beginning; aside from purposely choosing Gordon as his accomplice and Cardiff as the site of his computer-industry coup, he’s figured out how to manipulate the situation so that his new company will be legally obligated to support the project. Oh, and that punky computer whiz, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis)? Turns out he’s had the perfect job in mind for her all along — and by the end of the pilot, she and her camo pants are full-time employees of Cardiff.
Surely there’s potential for worthwhile drama here, and you could be forgiven for just sitting back and letting the strong performances and beautiful cinematography — each frame recalls a 30-year-old photograph — carry you through. But Halt and Catch Fire already has some major hurdles to jump. For one thing, it’s deadly boring to watch two guys make discoveries by scribbling down code, as Gordon and Joe do in one overlong montage. I won’t say it’s impossible to make this stuff as compelling as one of SC&P’s pitch meetings; it’s certainly a challenge, though, and one that Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t rise to in its debut episode. Then there’s the complicated, poorly explained legal situation that forces poor, family-owned Cardiff to run with Joe’s scheme.
But the biggest issue is the characters themselves, which are by now copies of copies of the great antiheroes (and their equally fascinating enablers) written by Matt Weiner and David Chase and Vince Gilligan. Joe MacMillan isn’t as magnetically charming or lost as Don Draper or Tony Soprano, nor is his initial plight as sympathetic at Walter White’s. There’s nothing about him that makes me want to find out how his story ends. It’s clear Gordon is supposed to be the heart of the show, but his predicament — crushed dreams, exasperated wife, alcoholic escapism — is too generic to be compelling.
As with Masters of Sex, another period workplace drama that is a transparent attempt to capitalize on the Mad Men formula, Halt and Catch Fire‘s greatest asset is its female lead. Cameron, a confident and apparently brilliant woman in a male-dominated industry, is refreshing in that she’s at least as much Lisbeth Salander as Peggy Olson. The show could save itself by fully fleshing out her character, the most unique one it’s got, and making her its focus. Unfortunately, if the pilot and the antihero stuff and everything I can surmise about the target demographic for a show about computer innovators in the ’80s are any indication, that’s never going to happen.
And you know what? I gave Halt and Catch Fire a chance, I might even stick around for another episode or two, but I’m sick of this. I’m sick of watching rich white dudes drink and fuck their way into a stupor of guilt and malaise, all while dominating their industry (or illegal pursuit) of choice, to the general approval of critics. I’m sick of convincing myself that this type of behavior makes sociopaths fascinating and complex. It’s not that I object to depicting any of these things on a moral level, or that I don’t love Mad Men and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. I’m just bored — bored of seeing networks like AMC compulsively repackage the same character in increasingly uninspired ways, to serve an increasingly narrow audience, when there are so many other slices of the human experience to investigate. Wake me up when it’s time for that revolution in television.