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Halt and Catch Fire - Pilot - Review

AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire starts off with a scene of an armadillo, the official small mammal of the state of Texas, slowly sauntering across the street as a car whizzes along and smashes it. Exiting from the car is a smooth, well-dressed businessman (from the East Coast as we later learn), displaying an arrogant, faint smile as he sees what he has done. The scene wonderfully sets up the new series – a period piece set in Dallas in the 1980s and based on the battle to dominate the PC market.

With shows like Mad Med and The Walking Dead under its belt, AMC has become known for launching series with wonderfully rounded out, complicated characters. Halt and Catch Fire follows suit with the introduction of Joe MacMillian, an armadillo-smashing smooth-talking manipulator – a loose cannon with a talent for getting people to follow, and leading them to their destruction. Although the whole cast delivers, Lee Pace, who plays MacMillian, owns the scenes as he portrays the character with a charismatic, disarming, and slightly sociopathic charm.

As we follow the story, we see that MacMillian isn’t in Dallas long before he talks his way into a sales position Cardiff Electric, an IBM competitor wanna-be that missed its opportunity to enter into the market before IBM came to dominate it. MacMillian promises to get them into the “Golden Circle.” If right now you’re thinking that you haven’t heard of Cardiff, as you have IBM - well, it's a fictional company, but it's also probably the first hint that this story won’t go well for our protagonists. MacMillian’s twisted schemes soon have Cardiff execs in a situation where MacMillian has compromised them so that they can’t fire him and are forced into playing his game and giving him the resources to develop their own PC clone.

Joining MacMillian on this team to develop the PC is Gordon Clark, a dispirited but brilliant middle-class software engineer who is drowning in self-pity from a previous career failure, so that he makes an easy mark for MacMillian. Also on the team is Cameron Howe, a rebellious, cynical, and also brilliant computer engineering student dropout who is looking for an opening to launch her career.

For those who are old enough to remember the ‘80s, it’s interesting to hear Howe talk with distain about the giant IBM the same way people about five years ago would refer to Microsoft. At one point, she expresses her cynicism with the PC market as “an industry built on people ripping off each other’s boring-ass ideas.” This show had a great start with a compelling story and fascinating characters. It will also appeal those who know a little bit about computers and are curious about computer industry history.