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Putting on a Show: What's Really Going on in Halt and Catch Fire

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Remember when Mickey and Judy decided to put on a show? That happened in the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms, and it launched the career of an entire stock plot. The characters in these stories are often seeking something for themselves--Mickey and Judy want to prove themselves as performers--and beyond that there's always an urgent rescue mission, whether it's saving their parents from bankruptcy, as Mickey and Judy's characters must do, or saving the orphanage in The Blues Brothers. The creators of Halt and Catch Fire, a new hour-long drama on AMC that began June 1, may be surprised to hear it, but they've set up the same kind of situation.

At the outset, its three enterprising heroes are in need; Joe has a vision he can't pursue alone, Gordon is drifting and dejected, and Cameron has to land a job. By the end of the first episode, they've got a project (Cameron gets hired for it), which is just in time, because the company where they work needs to be saved. The difference between Halt and Catch Fire and its predecessors is that in this show, instead of crafting a new piece of theater, our heroes set out to make a new computer. That's a pretty big difference, yes, but the parallel has more to tell us. The new series, like the old films, is about saving something by making something.

It's basically a backstage drama we're watching. That brings with it a high chance of discord: scheming, differing aims, clashing personalities, simmering resentment, and the like. But there's also a potential for song and dance, either literally in the case of the movies or figuratively in dramas like this, where the characters' work may include spells of harmony and collaboration. The premiere of Halt and Catch Fire doesn't skip either opportunity.

My aim is only to discuss a few aspects of the show, not review the entire pilot (or the second episode, which has now aired). So I won't describe the conflicts--what I just called the discord. But this episode's approach to music deserves to be pointed out. Roughly halfway through, Joe and Gordon hole up in a garage to figure out something about IBM's recently launched PC. We see signal probes held to integrated circuits, sine waves registering on an oscilloscope, LEDs glowing on a breadboard. Cryptic letters and numbers are recited, written down, typed up, and printed out. The look of the scene is chiaroscuro, darkness pierced with gleams of light. Hours may be passing, or entire days, as Joe and Gordon labor to extract forbidden knowledge from the thing on their workbench. They could be mages or alchemists of a past age.

The scene may strike some viewers as mere geekery, with nothing of music in it, and old-fashioned to boot, because all this is happening back in 1983. Step back and you can see more. Joe and Gordon's work in the garage suggests the ancient human quest to figure out how something works and gain control over it; at the same time, the montage has a fascinating rhythm and a lyrical quality. There's no clash of characters here; all is concord. Either I've missed a lot or this is an unusual thing. Writers are commonly taught that every scene needs conflict. The creators of Halt and Catch Fire, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, are pretty young--they're both in their early 30s, according to a Wired article--but they've clearly grown past that rule.

Along with the backstage-musical parallel, there's a more obvious one. AMC is running the show in the Sunday-night time slot that was just vacated when Mad Men went on midseason hiatus. Like Matthew Weiner's much-discussed and much-admired series, Halt and Catch Fire is a workplace drama, and a show about a particular industry, and a period piece that's capable of raising discussion about historical issues. What's more, the character of Joe will probably remind viewers of Don Draper. You think you can see who he is--he can turn on the charm, he's got a bit of a temper, he has daring ideas--and yet there are mysteries about his past. I'm not sure the comparison between the shows will help Halt and Catch Fire, but its creators seem to have invited it, and so has AMC.

I'm concerned about the nature of its truth as well. The show credits two technical consultants. One of its creators grew up in Dallas, where the show is set, and his father worked in the computer business there. Various people on the show's production staff expressed, in that Wired article, a high concern with accuracy. Despite all that, the pilot is sprinkled with technical, geographical, and social details that are likely to trip anyone who knows computers or the Dallas area. I'll skip the technical matters and give other examples. There's an armadillo in the opening sequence. Late in the episode, one of our central characters rides a bus near downtown; in a single shot, we see a familiar landmark called Reunion Tower and a group of longhorn cattle. The top men at the company we're following have a twangy accent and a folksy way of expressing things.

What's wrong? There are twangers in Dallas, some of whom may run midsize companies, but I never worked for one--the accent is a class thing. I never saw or heard of a 'dillo within the city limits, except one that some friends put on a leash and walked through the Highland Park Village shopping center. And I'm pretty sure that the only urban cattle in the region have been those passing through the Fort Worth stockyards. What Halt and Catch Fire has done is the Dallas way of presenting Dallas. It's far from the Mad Men way of presenting Manhattan.

So what've we got here? A rather hard-edged drama with a few doubtful notions that's willing to relax and sing now and then. I don't know whether to applaud what it's done well so far or fear for its ambition and its creators' relative lack of experience. But for now, there are reasons to keep watching.

Photo: Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), and Joe (Lee Pace). Courtesy AMC Networks.