Halt and Catch Fire’ makes the PC revolution into serious drama

McNairy, Mackenzie Davis and Pace (from left) stare down the future.

Two and a half stars

Halt and Catch Fire Sundays, 10 p.m., AMC.

The first episode of Halt and Catch Fire opens with a slow-moving armadillo getting run over by a speeding sports car, not exactly the most subtle metaphor for the brewing computer revolution that the show focuses on. AMC’s latest attempt to launch a new prestige drama, premiering the week after the Mad Men midseason finale, is obviously heavily indebted to the 1960s-set advertising drama, and not just because it’s set in the past and focused on an industry full of tortured creative types.

Set in Dallas in 1983, Halt and Catch Fire takes place at the fictional Cardiff Electric, a small company about to take on the giant IBM in the burgeoning personal-computer market. While the stereotype of the computer industry (especially in its early days) might be that it was full of awkward geeks, one of Halt’s two main characters is a suave Don Draper type, the smooth-talking salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace). Like Don Draper, Joe is a charismatic ladies’ man with a dark, mysterious past, and while Pace makes Joe’s personal magnetism believable, the show’s depiction of him as a brooding mystery man is so heavy-handed that it comes off as a little silly.

The other main character is a more typical tech nerd, meek engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who is somewhat reluctantly drawn into Joe’s plan to take on IBM. Creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers seem to know their computers, and a sequence in which Joe and Gordon reverse-engineer an IBM PC is full of authentically impenetrable lingo. But the show is more interested in Joe’s swagger and Gordon’s drinking problem, both of which it depicts with deadly seriousness.

That portentous tone infuses the whole show, and one of the key things the creators seem to have missed in their efforts to make the Mad Men of personal computers is that Mad Men is frequently funny. Halt and Catch Fire presents itself as a serious show about serious people doing serious things, and while that may be what AMC sees as the formula for acclaim and awards, it makes for a bit of a draining viewing experience.

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