[This is a review of Halt and Catch Fire season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
It's unfair to compare any series premiere to some of AMC's past All-Stars, but in both Breaking Bad and Mad Men, we learn early on about the protagonist's motivation - the desperation that fuels Walter White's journey into a life of crime, and how Don Draper is striving to live two lives. We understand the flaws that push these conflicted characters, but while Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is unmistakably driven to create something in Halt and Catch Fire - AMC's new PC revolution period drama - we're not entirely sure why, after watching the premiere episode.
Slick, impeccably attired, and supremely confident, Joe shows no real vulnerabilities (save for his recklessness) in the series premiere as Pace glides through a performance that is approximately 85% swagger, cutting through the first hour like a too hot knife through butter as he speeds into the Texas tech sector with a bloody armadillo under the front bumper of his Porsche. Joe has a plan and a target: get hired by Cardiff Electric and recruit Gordon Clark to his cause, antagonizing the wrinkled and lapsed innovator before taking him out on a sales call where Joe criticizes and seeks to inspire Gordon to action under the guise of a pitch to customers - a method that seems like sloppy, shortcut storytelling, but which nonetheless fits in with Joe's unrelenting style.
The contrast between these two men is obvious, from their respective appearances and attitudes, on down to their living arrangements and cars. Gordon is secure but tortured as he wastes away in a cluttered and conservative home with a wife and kids (in his eyes, paying the penalty for a dream he once had), while Joe sits in a chair surrounded by emptiness in an apartment with only his gnawing dream to keep him company.
Gordon is, quite frankly, the most interesting part of this series from the outset, played perfectly by Scoot McNairy in sleepwalk mode until a light goes on in Gordon's head after Joe presents him with an idea - "reverse engineer an IBM PC with me" - that eventually lights his journey past good reason and fear - after an appropriate 1980s music montage, that is.
Here, once again, we feel the contrast between these two characters as Joe throws a "cool guy" tantrum, playing ball inside the house because he's above the rules, while Gordon slowly comes around to the idea while tinkering in his garage out of the sight of his family, after telling his kids that his past computer, "The Symphonic", was the best thing that he had ever done. Once more, it is effective, but that trick won't last forever; these two characters share a journey to either oblivion or nirvana.
Gordon's wife is another solid character, and one that could have been reduced to a bundle of eye rolling stereotypes while standing in the way of Gordon's dreams because of a trivial thing like mounting debt and fears about keeping a roof over her head, but Donna (Kerry Bishé) has her own frustrations (she co-created "The Symphonic") and a mature approach to Gordon's somewhat immature fixation (immature in its value to him above his family, not the actual fixation). As Gordon works with Joe in this endeavor, it will be interesting to see Donna and Gordon's relationship develop as the future unravels.
As for the other member of the main cast, Mackenzie Davis' Cameron Howe comes onto the screen early as a rebellious college student with big ideas, who leaves Joe in the midst of a backroom tryst after he offends her. Later, she joins the team when Joe outs his and Gordon's IBM reverse engineering effort to push Cardiff into developing a competing product, but the character feels thinly developed and too reliant on style and personality - just like Joe.
Style over substance, this is the battle at play for Halt and Catch Fire's soul. Is this a slick looking (and sounding) drama that plans on mugging its way into our hearts while it tells us the story of "the crazy ones" - a comeback story about a man who rises up from the ashes of his dreams - or something in between? Right now, we aren't quite sure where Halt and Catch Fire is going, but there is certainly enough here to keep us interested.
Halt and Catch Fire airs on AMC Sunday nights @ 10PM ET.