“Halt and Catch Fire,” a new show about the rise of personal computing that premiered on AMC on Sunday, wants us to think, as its title implies, that it is a story about the risks involved in reaching beyond your own capacity and rushing to do everything at once. But just as the leads are attempting to reverse-engineer a personal computer originally manufactured by IBM, “Halt and Catch Fire” feels as though it was constructed in response to other shows. And it faces the same challenge as any new product: How do you find your slot in a market that is already crowded with strong entrants?
Through the first episode, the strong suit for “Halt and Catch Fire” is not the characters. The show has a leading man, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who has a Don Draper-like gappy backstory, a tendency to pontificate and a deep dedication to irritating his less creatively inspired supervisors. The series’ creators are aware of the Skyler White problem — the tendency of audiences to turn on female characters who question anti-heroes. The solution? Eliminate the questions. “Build it!” Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) coos to her husband, Gordon (Scoot McNairy). “Whatever it is you’re dreaming of, build it. I know you can make it great.”
The biggest hurdle for “Halt and Catch Fire,” though, is that it has arrived on television at a moment when many shows are already offering sharp takes on technology and its place in society, with much greater sophistication and much less credulousness. Next to “Silicon Valley,” “The Americans” or “The Good Wife,” “Halt and Catch Fire” looks less like the Macintosh 128K or the Altair 8800 and more like a Commodore PET: neither first in its class nor visionary enough to move personal computing forward.
Mike Judge’s “Silicon Valley,” which ended its first season on HBO as “Halt and Catch Fire” premiered, is the sharpest contrast to AMC’s new bid for a prestige drama, and not just because Judge has made a brightly lit comedy about smart people doing trivial work rather than a drab show about supposed geniuses.
On “Halt and Catch Fire,” MacMillan closes a sales pitch by declaring: “I’m not going to apologize for caring about your business, even if the people who work for you don’t. I’ll ask you one more time: Are you ready to be more?” That may be hyperbole. Even in private, the characters talk like Sterling Cooper employees without the business-hours bourbon and sense of the ridiculous. “This is an industry built on people ripping off each other’s boring-ass ideas,” declares the woman who will become MacMillan’s first hire. “Computers could be more, they should be. You build counting machines, the same thing you’ve done for the last 70 years?”
“Silicon Valley,” set three decades later, is about characters doing precisely that. The series finale involved scrappy engineers from a start-up hoping they could build a better version of their own compression algorithm, which was itself reverse-engineered by employees of a giant tech company. “Halt and Catch Fire” is premised on the idea that something important is coming, a rise of the machines that will transform the way we live and work without taking over for us entirely. This is simultaneously a modest and a pretentious vision, and “Silicon Valley” is there to remind us of precisely how it turned out.
The technical advances we see on screen in “Silicon Valley” are not unimpressive or unimportant. But Judge has a fairly precise sense of how much it actually matters to be able to shrink your files for storage, when it comes down to it. He and his collaborators never miss a chance to mock aspiring inventors who see themselves on some sort of world-historical mission.
“The Americans,” FX’s Cold War drama about deep-cover Soviet spies, is a period show like “Halt and Catch Fire,” and although its characters are not techies by nature, they are drawn into cutting-edge research by their work. Last year, the titular married KGB agents raced after the tools behind the Strategic Defense Initiative, only to find out that the program did not actually work. This year, they were assigned to learn more about the Arpanet, which a professor described as “sort of like God, without the big beard and the flowing white robes,” even as it is housed in a series of mundane academic labs.
The strength of “The Americans’ ” approach to technology is the show’s dual ability to make big advancements feel genuinely vertiginous and strange, while recognizing how many of these wild dreams flare out into failure. People are actually dying over technology in “The Americans,” giving the show weight that “Halt and Catch Fire” so far lacks. “The Americans” intensifies that tragedy by suggesting that sometimes they die for nothing. Technological progress, in the show, is not a clear and consistent forward march.
Like “The Americans,” “The Good Wife,” CBS’s contemporary political and legal procedural, has focused more and more on technology as the seasons have progressed, moving away from murders and toward copyright disputes and the National Security Agency. In an approach “Halt and Catch Fire” might learn from, it has meticulously deepened our sense of the consequences that can come from seemingly mundane technological advancements and tech policy.
Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) enters the world of tech law when she represents a Mark Zuckerberg-like innovator who is displeased with a movie about his exploits. “The Good Wife” worked its way up from that small-scale, ripped-from-the-headlines entry point to more serious questions.
What do tech companies owe their clients when their privacy policies conflict with the practices of authoritarian regimes? What impact does the Internet have on our morals? Why are governments suspicious of efforts to build new currencies? How should we handle conflicts of interest as search engine companies develop new lines of business? Can online communities counterbalance failures of justice, or is vigilantism always destabilizing?
Tellingly, many of the conflicts “The Good Wife” identifies and explores so sharply are rooted not in hardware development, where “Halt and Catch Fire” has invested its attention, but in software and database issues. “Silicon Valley,” too, is focused on software and app development, rather than on hardware.
“Halt and Catch Fire” has some sense that its characters are in the wrong business, or at least in a preliminary one. “Computers aren’t the thing,” MacMillan tells Gordon, quoting an article Gordon wrote back at him. “They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” “Halt and Catch Fire” will need to convince us that it is focused on the right “thing” in that equation to make its mark as a show and to make a clear and convincing argument about the importance of its characters’ work.