On the surface, Halt and Catch Fire looks like AMC's desperate attempt to replace their cash cow Mad Men with a similar show. Like Mad Men, it's a period piece centering on America's close past (This time we're in the early 80s instead of the 60s), has a brooding, narcissistic and perfectionist main character with a mysterious past, and takes place in a stressful corporate environment full of dreamers, backstabbers and opportunists.
Yet under the guise of such a cynical attempt at a substitute, Halt and Catch Fire is actually about the day-to-day struggles of realizing an impossible dream. It's about how hard and exhausting it is in a dog-eat-dog capitalistic society to come up with something groundbreaking and original without losing a piece of your mind and soul.
At the center of the show is the mysterious and brooding expert salesman Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), our Don Draper, if you will. A year after he disappeared from his job at IBM, Joe shows up at a small computer company in Dallas called Cardiff Electric and practically begs for a sales job. His real motivation is to convince a depressed employee, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), to build a revolutionary new computer. Gordon designed a computer in the past and sinked all of his family's money into it, only to come out with a big fat zero. Now he slumps between work and home, barely saying a single word to his co-workers or even his family, stuck in a passionless loop of a life.
Joe sparks some life into Gordon by having him reverse engineer the highly classified IBM BIOS. He uses intricate legal loopholes to force Cardiff into taking a huge risk on building a new computer and hires a hotshot young programmer named Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) to write the IBM-inspired BIOS. Throughout the season, we watch these three characters go through hell and back as they try to bring a revolutionary new piece of hardware to life.
Instead of doubling down on the melodramatic elements found in Mad Men, a quality show that frustrates me with the way it attempts to criticize the characters' soullessness and narcissism while also glorifying it, Halt and Catch Fire almost completely focuses on the details of attempting to stay afloat in the cutthroat American business world while trying something fresh and different. Instead of a traditional ensemble drama, it's constructed almost as a corporate procedural.
Yes, there are the usual romantic sub-plots inserted in there, like the complicated relationship between Joe and Cameron, or an affair attempted by Gordon's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe, who also played Scoot McNairy's wife in Argo), but they are few and far between. Instead, each episode focuses on another aspect of the long and arduous process of building the computer, while passionately dealing with the problems, as well as the outpouring of creativity, blood, sweat and tears that comes out of it. Instead of adapting the Mad Men model to the 80s, the show runners really care about the industry and the period the show takes place in. The attention to detail in both the recreation of the period, as well as the technical details of the hardware and software, is remarkable.
Even though I'm not a programmer, I have it on good authority that the technical language used in the show is always genuine, no matter how foreign it might look or sound to non-programmer audiences. This kind of a realistic approach shows respect for the audience. It's also a show that understands the burning passion behind creating something that will leave a mark for future generations. One of the most emotional scenes in the season occur when Joe lays eyes on a Macintosh and is brought to tears because of the challenge and drive it represents to do something better.
Just like Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire has the look of a movie or TV show from the period it represents, while also looking clean and spiffy in a contemporary way. Instead of the bright colors of the 60s, we get the cold and metallic look of the 80s. The 1080p transfer stays loyal to this style and brings an incredibly clear video presentation that also correctly represent the show's colder color scheme.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track that's included throughout the season is surprisingly dynamic for a TV show. The dialogue and sound effects are all mixed really well and are easy to hear. Halt and Catch Fire is chock full of early 80s punk, hardcore and new wave tracks, which will frequently give your system a workout.
Inside Episodes 101-110: These are ten short promotional videos, around five minutes each, where the cast and crew talk up the elements in each episode. It's annoying that all of them are found on the last disc. It could have been fun to watch them after every episode if they were added on the corresponding discs.
Remaking the 80s: A three-minute featurette about the crew meticulously recreating the show's time period.
Rise of the Digital Cowboys: A very short promotional clip about the burgeoning computer business in 80s Dallas.
Setting the Fire: A five-minute doc about the show's attention to detail as far the period technology is concerned.
It looks like Halt and Catch Fire will return for a second season, but for a while it looked like the show was going to be cancelled without even getting a second chance. That might be why the last two episodes of the season hurry into concluding many sub-plots that have been left open, while trying to give the main story arc somewhat of a closure. This approach left me with a rushed feeling at the end of the season. Regardless of this hiccup, Halt and Catch Fire is an excellent show for everyone, not just computer nerds and Mad Men fans.