With the brainy Breaking Bad behind them and the brain-leaking The Walking Dead drawing record cable ratings, AMC is a force to be reckoned with in the world of TV drama. Their non-genre efforts have yielded both winners and duds, which had obscured expectations for their upcoming period drama Halt and Catch Fire, a series that encapsulates the early 1980s computer boom inside the story of a few forward thinkers whose talents would set the future in motion.
Though it may sound drier than week-old bread, Lee Pace (Guardians of the Galaxy) is all the butter a show needs, and it’s refreshing that the moody, fluorescent-lit atmosphere doesn’t feel dour. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven, if the main character was named Joe MacMillan and he only had two other people with him. Plus all the other differences.
The Halt and Catch Fire series premiere — which is currently available for a sneak preview on AMC’s website and their Tumblr page — introduces us to Pace’s smooth-talking Joe as he vets a college classroom of tech-heads. His demeanor says he’s the owner of a big, important company, but his eagerness suggests a veiled desperation. He hooks up with one of the students, an electronics prodigy named Cameron. She is a rebellious youth not immediately prone to trust, though she predictably comes around to Joe’s side once her ego is stroked enough.
Joe pushes for a job at Cardiff Electric, a second-tier tech company that also employs Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a genius engineer who has traded in his aspirations for alcohol and a paycheck that keeps his family’s heads above water. His wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) has been down dark roads with him before, but he’s trying to put all that behind him. Then along comes Joe, tempting Gordon to risk everything for a shot at success.
Joe has a couple of secrets lurking in the shadows of his bright personality, and Pace brings enough energy that the character could be a mass murderer and you’d still be tempted to root for him. He’s a step ahead of everyone else, except for the bigger brains at IBM and Apple, but he’s not interested in their approach. This cavalier attitude is enough to threaten Gordon and Cameron’s futures, which should make for interesting drama as the rest of the 10-episode season unfolds. If nothing else, it’s going to cause a lot of heartburn for their boss, John Bosworth, played with fractured authority by Toby Huss (Carnivale).
But it doesn’t seem like this mysterious angle is what Halt and Catch Fire will hinge upon. Just like in the title — a hyperbolic endgame computer command — there’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to the show. Wry humor crops up, such as Gordon calling out Joe’s perfect hair, and a suitable amount of period references, such as Gordon’s family going to see Return of the Jedi at the theater. In an offbeat move similar to AMC’s other series, the very first thing we see happen is an armadillo getting run over. Metaphor, or just a creative team that hates armadillos? (The show was created by Our Footloose Remake director Christopher Cantwell and newcomer Christopher C. Rogers, and we have no idea what their thoughts are on animals.)
When all of that is combined with the family drama dynamics of Gordon’s home life — which will admittedly need to be fleshed out in order to be compelling — and obvious baggage in Cameron’s past, Halt and Catch Fire feels like a surefooted drama that doesn’t need to resort to ostentatiousness in order to make computer-based drama more intriguing. I mean, I kind of hope it does at some point, but not yet.
Again, you can watch Halt and Catch Fire‘s first episode online right now, or you can wait until the series premieres on Sunday, June 1.