There's a backroom fuck less than five minutes into the series premiere of Halt and Catch Fire, because goddamn it, this isn't your grandaddy's computer show. This is AMC's computer show, and if AMC wants a sex scene shot from the waist up, you better believe they'll get it in before the credit sequence. So to speak.
Meet Joe MacMillan, coolguy salesman and back half of the beast with two backs. He looks like John Cusack in a Nic Cage costume, drives his Porsche huireal fast (vroom vroom! nrreaaaawwww! beep beep!) into passing armadillos in highly symbolic sequences, and wears a cool leather jacket with the sleeves bunched up. He's a slick pitchman and an ace with the ladies, but he's also a little bit of a creep with an unaccountable missing year from his employment record. And he believes in computers. He believes in them so damn much.
See, it's 1983, and IBM owns the personal computer. They steamroll any upstart incursion on their empire, while mid-sized computer companies like Halt and Catch Fire's fictitious Cardiff Electric chug along, stunted but stable, risking nothing. IBM's specter hangs over all of "I/O," reminding me of The Walking Dead's zombies or the Thing from The Thing: more than just an entity, they're an invisible force, a law of this world, that naked ambition will be met with swift retribution. Joe hates that. "What a fearful way of doing business!" And he has a plan.
Skulking in the cubicles of Cardiff Electric and drinking away the last of his dreams is Gordon Clark, adorably schubby-handsome family man, who likes to cut loose now and then so he can be the nerdiest guy in the drunk tank and help his wife to be adequately "long-suffering," as prestige drama conventions demand. Back in the day, he and his wife gambled and lost on innovating a computer called the Symphonic, but Gordon's still convinced it's the best thing he ever did. Thus, the drinking, the slumping, the blasting Creedence and staring into the middle distance. Gordon used to believe in computers. Can he ever believe again?
Halt and Catch Fire moves real brisk, and I thank it for that. Just enough time is spent on Joe jimmying his way into Cardiff and establishing his salesman bonafides, and just enough time is spent on Gordon hemming and hawing about his family and mortgage before he gives in to Joe's exhortations to reverse-engineer an IBM PC with him, to build "a machine that nobody else has the balls to build" (a machine... made of balls???).
And just enough time (next to none) is spent before the steel trap springs shut: right after he and Gordon spend a straight 72 hours transcribing proprietary IBM ROM BIOS (computer talk!), Joe's called IBM, his old employer, to inform them of their highly actionable actions, because he knows that Cardiff's only option to avoid total liquidation is to play like they've been pursuing PC development all along. Meaning, they have to actually build the ball computer of Joe's dreams.
The catch: neither Gordon nor Joe can appear to be anywhere near the project. (Re-)enter Cameron Howe, the sexy punky programmatrix who Joe entered in the opening sequence. She's a college dropout, a kickass programmer, and basically 80's Starbuck, from her rad choppy hair to her love for tusslin'. She absolutely believes in computers, which is why Joe's been shtupping/scouting her. "Scouting you for this exact moment!" She fills out their team just in time for IBM's endless lawyer parade to begin. Like I mentioned above, I love that IBM is as leviathan-y in the flesh as they are in the minds of the characters.
Cameron's a cliché to be sure, but heck, everyone on here's kind of a cliché. At least in the pilot, though, these characters are pulling each other taut. By the time they're all done arguing with each other for the hour, there's a nifty, elegant architecture of fear, drive, and desperation in place. And as much badboy status as the show affords Joe's dickhead antics, his stroking of Gordon's thwarted aspirations and pent-up ego left me kind of queasy; faint kudos to the show for taking Gordon's commitment to his domestic life (such as it is) seriously, where it could easily let itself get entirely caught up in Joe's high-velocity antiheroics. Here's to the inevitable affair plotline.
So even though Halt and Catch Fire may well turn out to be another green-and-brown show about men with an ugly side beneath their high ideals on a network almost entirely given over to the ugly side of men (and green and brown), I still do want to see what's going on under the slick veneer of the 1980's. Plus, maybe they'll build a robot. Wow!
[Image via AMC]