A conniving, slick talking salesman, a self-proclaimed genius turned depressed loser, and a young, talented rebel walk into a Mexican restaurant… It’s not the start of a joke (unless you didn’t particularly like the first episode) but instead is the pilot of AMC’s new series Halt and Catch Fire. And while a new TV show should never be judged on its first episode, “I/O” is certainly no farther along than beta-stage with a lot of debugging to go before it becomes a must watch.
Combine two parts Don Draper, three parts Walter White, in a 1980s sportscar and you get Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace) – former IBM employee who is out to get his and screw his former employer in the process. All he wants is what everyone white man wanted in the 1980s, to be rich. Luckily he’s got a way to do that by finding a way to steal IBM's microchip, make subtle differences, and produce it as his own. Joe’s machinations are veiled but his desires are clear from the onset, he is a man with a plan yet revealed and he almost doesn’t care how he achieves it. By the time Joe gets a job with Cardiff Electronics the audience knows Joe has something up his sleeve but the question is, do we really care what it is?
At the very beginning of the episode Joe meets Cameron (played by Mackenzie Davis), a computer science student who doesn’t fit in with societal norms. She has a vision for where computers will go that her classmates lack and Joe quickly slicks his way into her panties before ultimately blowing it by telling her, in the middle of backroom sex, that she isn’t going to get an unoffered job just by hooking up with him. She disappears for much of the rest of the episode.
The last of this merry band of computer entrepreneurs is the depressed, genius, loser Gordon (played by Scoot McNairy). His family life is unfulfilling, he’s stuck in a dead end job, and he’s given up on his dream of creating and building his own computer. Being introduced to him as his wife, complete with their children sleeping in the backseat, picks him up from the drunk tank late at night was well done and told us all we needed to know about him. Unfortunately, “I/O” must fill an hour of TV so there’s 35 more minutes of Gordon at rock bottom and Joe cajoling him.
Usually, the mark of a good pilot is to introduce the audience to the characters and their main goal, which “I/O” does. However, if the show follows the same lines as the pilot a more important question comes to mind “Why do we care?” Answering that question may be Halt and Catch Fire’s biggest problem.
The simple solution would be to have sympathetic characters that the audience can root for. Unfortunately, if the pilot is any indication, none of the above characters are worthy of your sympathies. Joe does not have the charm of a Don Draper or the circumstances of a Walter White. He has plans to suit his own selfish needs and while he is clearly talented in manipulation he doesn’t offer much rooting interest. However, not being able to root for Joe would be fine if Cameron and/or Gordon were sympathetic characters. While Cameron didn't get much screentime her alternative rebelliousness didn’t help her win any points and her negotiating with Joe for more money dug herself in a hole. She is the type of character that would normally be easy to root for as she is going to bust up the establishment but seeing as how Joe has already done that there isn’t much she can change besides the office dress code.
This leaves us with Gordon who, on paper, seems like your perfect sympathetic archetype. His life didn’t turn out the way he wanted it to and now he is embarking on a journey that utilizes his particular skills. We should want to see him succeed and we should all know how he feels as we have all had to let go of some of our dreams. However, Gordon is far too standoffish. He is almost dead to the world for most of the episode like an empty vessel floating through the motions. His unwillingness to fix his daughter’s Speak ‘N Spell is a backfired narrative device that, instead of being his gateway back into doing what he loves, is more of a silent depressed tantrum. Perhaps the aforementioned incident and his already too contentious relationship with Joe could be forgiven if it was clear that Gordon was enjoying himself while he and Joe were reverse engineering the IBM computer but even then his enthusiasm was paltry at best. There was no glimmer in his eye or bounce in his step and even though he and Joe had been working on it nonstop for four days Gordon’s enjoyment was never related to the audience.
So what’s left if the audience doesn’t care about the characters who are sharing their journey? An exciting plot always helps but considering a solid chunk of the episode was spent disassembling and reassembling a computer for purposes that, even when describe in layman’s terms (to the guy whose idea this all was), were still confusing an exciting plot seems improbable at this point in the story.
Also, the show is not helped by its lack of interesting visuals. It makes perfect sense why most of the show has a cool temperature color filter over it – it makes everything seem a little more sterile and a little less human. However, this doesn’t have the effect that say The Matrix’s color filter did. While it makes sense for the tone of the show it makes everything look a little dulled and a little less interesting. And when many of the settings of your show are in an unnamed, cookie cutter office building or a typical 1980s home there isn’t much to keep your interest visually.
Having said all this, Halt and Catch Fire could become a very compelling show. Very rarely do first episodes of TV shows end up being what the show ends up becoming. But the show will certainly need to scale back some of the antihero tropes set up in “I/O” and, perhaps, clue the audience into Joe’s master plans before Gordon and Cameron become aware of them. Ultimately, the interactions between the three main characters will be what makes the show and, hopefully, they will not all be as extremely contentious as they were in “I/O”. There is some potential here but there are certainly some problems that need to be addressed.
AMC is at a crossroads. The channel will forever be known as the home of critically-acclaimed shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men as well as the uber popular The Walking Dead. But with Breaking Bad already ended and Mad Men seven episodes away from ending a channel cannot be built on The Walking Dead and spinoffs alone. AMC tried with the recently picked up by Netflix The Killing and the somehow still on the air Hell on Wheels but neither of those shows brought the viewers or the acclaim that AMC’s previous bell cows did. And now in the 2014 spring/summer season AMC has launched two America-centric period pieces in Turn and Halt and Catch Fire. Turn is most likely destined for a Hell on Wheels fate, although the quality is better and the historical accuracy is lauded. Which only leaves us Halt and Catch Fire and when the antihero genre has been so well done already on the same network, AMC is going to have to give the audience something more (wink, wink) to keep the audience coming back to its newest show. Hopefully “I/O” is not indicative of what the series will become as whole because if it is it may become obsolete much sooner than AMC would like.