You might imagine that there would be nothing less sexy than a 1980s period drama about the dawn of the personal computer. For one thing, historical accuracy dictates that it’s going to star a lot of white guys with oversized eyeglasses. For another, that kind of story won’t be driven by action you can see, which means there will probably be many scenes where characters sit in front of computer screens, typing furiously, explaining what they’re doing out loud. But Halt and Catch Fire, which premieres Sunday night on AMC, isn’t that kind of show. It actually tries very hard to make the early years of computer programming look dangerous and suspenseful, maybe even hot, if geek love is your type of thing.
The pilot begins in 1983, as former IBM exec Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) lectures a college class about emerging technology. Decked out in a stylish suit with Don Draper hair, he’s busy telling the students that they’re ill prepared for the future when a young woman named Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) corrects his use of the term Very Large Scale Integration. “I don’t think you really know what that is,” she says, laughing. “Nobody who knows what it is calls it that.”
Soon, they’re knocking back shots, playing arcade games at the bar, and discussing a top-secret project. Then, just a few rounds of Centipede later, they’re having sex in the back room, and Joe tells Cameron that just because they’re hooking up doesn’t mean he’s going to hire her. She pushes him away and zips up her high-waisted jeans.
All of this happens before the opening credits roll, which might seem like cheap provocation–and it is. But maybe it’s also a genius move on the part of the show’s creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers. Clearly, they understand that when viewers are willing to stick through an opening conversation about VLSI and other nerd jargon, they need a nice reward. Apparently, so does Joe: By the end of the episode, he has hired Cameron to work for his small Texas company, Cardiff Electric. That’s not a spoiler. You can see it coming, even if you’re not wearing oversized eyeglasses.
Yes, the show’s view of women is just as dated as Cameron’s jeans. It turns out that Joe is planning to reverse-engineer an IBM computer with help from Gordon (Scoot McNairy), a heavy-drinker who created one of the first PCs with his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé). But Donna won’t let him go. She’s worried that he won’t make enough money to provide for the family. No doubt, Gordon will soon dry out, start programming, and alienate his wife, who’s doomed to stand alongside AMC’s fellow scorned women Betty Draper and Skyler White and defend herself to TV recap commenters. Casting Donna as an obstacle to Gordon’s success is a particularly strange move since the couple was partly inspired by real-life computing pioneers Dorothy and Gary Kildall. It’s hard to believe that Dorothy Kildall, who joined her husband to try to build an operating system for the first IBM personal computer, was really such a grump.
There are still quite a few good reasons to watch this flawed show. The pilot features some clever twists that I won’t ruin here. The dialogue can be highly quotable, in an engrave-this-mantra-on-your-iPad way. (“Computers aren’t the thing–they’re the thing that gets us to the thing!”) And McNairy is fantastic, simmering with quiet intensity that suggests that there’s much more to Gordon than we’re privy to in the pilot. In fact, it’s very difficult to judge the series by its first hour alone. (Future episodes were not available for critics before the premiere.) There’s so much potential to this story. The Americans and Mad Men have recently proven that there’s great drama to be culled from the rise of personal computing. And the fact that Halt and Catch Fire takes place at a time when IBM was on top gives the writers a lot of room to play with our expectations. Obviously, IBM’s story ends badly–but where, exactly, did they go wrong? So much depends on the next few episodes. Right now, only one thing is certain: No one will ever use the phrase Very Large Scale Integration again. B-