Why Halt & Catch Fire is must-see geek TV (and why we can’t let it die)

Photo courtesy AMC

Photo courtesy AMC

Halt and Catch Fire isn’t Silicon Valley where the presence of a woman in a skirt sends the coders into a tailspin. This is the dying cry of the zipless f**k, before everyone got spooked about AIDS. This is hot neon, the smell of the soldering gun on a circuit board, and the deep empty place inside that drives creative people to do crazy things, think different, and meet each other where the metal meets the code.

Unfortunately, dismal ratings may possibly keep the show, whose plot hinges on a rag-tag group of misfits reverse engineering the IBM PC around the same time Woz & Jobs were busy home-brewing in the garage, from being picked up for a second season.

You can watch Halt and Catch Fire, named for the machine code (HCF) that was able to cause a computer to stop working, on AMC or iTunes.

We feel so strongly about this retro-tastic show (Coleco! Pong! Texas Instruments!) that we put up a petition to save it. Here’s why you should sign:

cameron

Smart girls: Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) is an engineer of incredible talent, and she saves the project at Cardiff Electric when MacMillan hides the backups and blames Cameron. She uses her super smart brain while still managing to be indispensable at her day job at Texas Instruments (and NOT as a secretary) and raising her two daughters. Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) is the hot young keyboard jockey who creates an entirely new operating system for the fictional portable computer, hacks into a national bank to move funds to Cardiff Electric at her boss’ request, and generally talks circles around the best software boys in the cubicle farm.

John Bosworth

Geek chic: As Cardiff Electric boss-man John Bosworth (played with full-out Texan glee by Toby Huss) says at one point, “People who put up the money, they like to take the credit, but the credit belongs to them that built it.” This is the theme of the whole show – it’s the people not in the spotlight — the coders, the hardware people, the folks that bleed into each new design — that are the true heroes of the computer revolution. Halt and Catch Fire is compelling television because of its focus on these people: their lives, their dreams, their heartbreak.

home decor

The decor: There’s the Clark household, full of wood paneling, shag carpet, and dark browns and reds, which really shows how the early decades hold onto the late previous decades in style. The ’70s still holds sway over their decorating choices. Contrast that with Joe McMillan’s apartment – it’s all chrome, glass, and black leather. It’s so minimalist that Clark exclaims “He’s cleared out!” when he and Cameron visit just before Comdex. While we don’t see any Nagel prints on the wall, you know there must be at least one, lurking somewhere in that apartment.

music

The music: There are some deep ‘80s tracks here, including punk (The Magnificent Seven by The Clash), classic rock (Lodi by CCR), new wave (Germ Free Adolescents by X-Ray Spex), and a dash of classical and jazz thrown into the mix. Music is a big part of any decade, and it’s a joy to have some of these non-typical yet completely authentic sounds filling out the period piece.

Joe MacMillan

Lee Pace: This is a career-defining performance from Pace, who’s got a career that spans a goofy, lovable romantic lead on Pushing Daisies all the way to an angry blue demi-god in the new Marvel blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy. His turn as Joe MacMillan is complex and nuanced; he sizzles in every scene. There’s the bi-sexual Joe, who moves from bed to bed, using sex to cleans his guilty soul, prodigal son Joe, who still can’t tell his daddy no while he pouts like a teenager, and there’s playful Joe, running outside in a storm to “save” the Clark kids from the scary thunder gods. His acting, like the majority of the cast, is sparse, true to his character, and a truly great performance.

Gordon Clark

Scoot McNairy: The other principal male actor in the show plays Gordon Clark, the put-upon engineer who does all the hardware and motherboard design for the new portable computer. He’s a family man that can’t quite connect with his daughters, and he’s still crazy like he was when he first met his wife, Donna. In a scene from later in the season, he laments that she’s gone straight while he’s still crazy, just like they were when they met. Watching McNairy just plain lose it in episode seven is like passing a car wreck on the street: you don’t want to look away.

If you’re convinced to watch the show, or feel like supporting a fantastic show that focuses on technology in a stylish, well-written and produced way, sign our online petition here. Watch on iTunes here, or full episodes on AMC here.

  • http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/320/324/324.2/hizballah/ Sons of Ares

    Perhaps maybe you people (oh yes, “you people”!) should actually be watching the show when it’s broadcast for the ratings rather than stealing, oh sorry, *torrenting* it.

    • kasey luick

      Does watching on demand count? And if you call people “you guys”, you are a stereotyping naive a**h***!

      • http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/320/324/324.2/hizballah/ Sons of Ares

        One pays for on-demand, so no.

        “…you are a stereotyping naive a**h***!”

        Let me guess, public school?

    • disqus_OcmBQbrgHg

      Watching on cable isn’t possible for everyone, but it is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video.

  • MacAdvisor

    Might be nice if you mentioned what network it was on, let alone the day and time its shown.

    • http://www.feastofbeast.com DJBabyBuster

      AMC Sunday nights, but the 10 episode season is concluded for now. Let hope it returns…

      • http://www.tv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/community/post/some-techsplanations-and-background-for-halt-and-catch-fire-episode-1-io-1402155761/ ArkhamNative

        The moderator keeps deleting my positive comments about the show for some reason. But all 10 episodes are on AMC’s site for streaming, for about 2-3 more weeks.

      • Rob LeFebvre

        Nope – we’re not deleting your comments – honest! Please try again?

    • kasey luick

      AMC(he mentioned it BTW) and I believe it is Sunday nights. 90% certain

  • Rob Lewis

    “a rag-tag group of misfits reverse engineering the IBM PC around the same time Woz & Jobs were busy home-brewing in the garage”

    The trailer clearly states Texas, 1983. Apple had left the garage 5 years earlier and earned almost 1 billion, yes with a B” in 1983. Is the show that off in the details? If so, I’m going to hate it. Or is the article trying to be cute and making the show sound stupid in the process?

    • Sean O’Farrell

      They see the first Mac at Comdex and watch the 1984 Mac commercial as the first season ends. That said, the show is terrible. I watched to the end and regret doing so.

      • mattack1

        I thought the show was excellent.. It got many details wrong, but of course it’s an alternate history in many ways. I actually was surprised by how much it seemed to get right.

    • http://www.tv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/community/post/some-techsplanations-and-background-for-halt-and-catch-fire-episode-1-io-1402155761/ ArkhamNative

      The show is quite accurate, though not absolutely perfect to every tiniest detail. It knows when the Altair 8800 came out, and that Apple is already around and doing quite well with its Apple II line.

      • http://hasten.co/ CitizenX

        It’s not that accurate. Not at all. They mention Compaq but not the fact that they had already reverse engineered the bios and were selling a portable.

        I was at Comdex in 83 and if Apple did have a Macintosh in their hospitality suite, I certainly missed it. I had heard rumblings about it from some of my education customers that summer. Seems unlikely that they would have ruined their surprise that way.

        A cheaper clone from an unknown company would have been just that. A cheaper clone and nothing to get excited about

        I loved the show having lived the era as a salesman/store manager for the Byte Shop with the Terrell Brothers in Seattle, WA but was very disappointed with the accuracy.

      • Christopher Columbus

        You realize Cardiff Electric was actually supposed to be COMPAQ and was following their storyline? Duh. They obviously couldn’t call it COMPAQ for legal reasons.

      • http://www.tv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/community/post/some-techsplanations-and-background-for-halt-and-catch-fire-episode-1-io-1402155761/ ArkhamNative

        Cardiff Electric was an established company that started decades ago with “diodes and ham radio”, which reminded me more of HeathKit, which also had a line of CP/M and DOS compatibles. It seemed to me that CE was based on multiple historical companies.

      • http://www.tv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/community/post/some-techsplanations-and-background-for-halt-and-catch-fire-episode-1-io-1402155761/ ArkhamNative

        At the beginning of episode 2 Joe and his IBM ex-buddy clearly mention both Compaq and Columbia Data Products as two companies who had already successfully & legally reverse-engineered the IBM BIOS. Those products are even featured in that episode’s Story Sync.

        The Mac preview thing I chalk up to artistic license. Showing it had much more dramatic impact than a few lines of dialog could. It was only 2 months (including Christmas) before the Mac’s announcement and the preparations, though secret, must have been in full swing (though probably not at COMDEX.)

    • kasey luick

      Its the writer. The show actually is very detail oriented.

  • http://www.tv.com/shows/halt-and-catch-fire/community/post/some-techsplanations-and-background-for-halt-and-catch-fire-episode-1-io-1402155761/ ArkhamNative

    HCF is on AMC, and for the next few weeks all 10 episodes are available for streaming from that site (amctv.com) and at least my cable provider’s on-demand/streaming service.

    It’s a wonderfully intricately layered show. It’s not afraid to drop tech terms and not explain them, though at its core it’s a character-based drama. It’s also quite complex. The plot and details aren’t all handed to the viewer in dialog, and often you’ll miss things in the first viewing (or second, or maybe until you discuss it with others).

    If HCF has a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t mind being so subtle. Even professional reviewers get lost in motivations and nuance, not to mention technical and historical details.

  • http://www.feastofbeast.com DJBabyBuster

    Surprised it took you guys this long to give it a mention. I’m guessing it would’ve been more helpful before the season concluded to try and actually drive up the ratings while it was still broadcasting. But yeah, it is a total shame that this gem has somehow slipped under everybody’s radar. The soundtrack especially is some of the best on television.

  • Tyler Allen

    Just as I’m sure others have said. The type of people who would like this show are not the type to pay for cable! Yet those people would love to pay AMC, HBO , ESPN just like netflix! I think they call it “cordnevers”.

    • Chris

      You bring up a good point

    • menevets

      It’s available on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play. The day after it airs. It’s not like if you don’t have cable, you can’t get it legally almost realtime, say like Game of Thrones or The Leftovers, where you have to wait a year.

  • Chris

    Finished the first season and I really enjoyed it. Compared to all the other starting TV shows this year, this show really has story depth and I hope it gets the go ahead for season 2. You really see the characters develop, I especially like where they left them at on the final episode (e10). What I think is also important is that it doesn’t drag any particular topic on for to long, you never get bored, while at the same time each episode doesn’t feel rushed. If you grew up in this era (floppy discs, the epic Macintosh commercial, the Internet just beginning talked about, etc.) or simply like the history, check this show out.

  • Greg Fannin

    Maybe some people got fed up by a disturbing scene in episode three and never watched the show again.

    • mattack1

      What scene are you talking about?

  • Jose Galapagos

    I tried watching this show, and the writing was just awful. I bailed after the 3rd episode, it was just terrible.

  • Gareth Heta

    Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been championing this show, in the face of an inexplicable tide of critic apathy, on lots of the major tv sites, and will continue to do so.

  • Adam McMillan

    This show is my favorite on TV right now. I don’t want to say I like it more than Mad Men, but I looked forward to Sundays for Halt and Catch Fire. Great acting and that show intro always gets me excited. Very well done. If you haven’t watched this show, watch it now. It will be a travesty of epic proportions if its canceled. There is so much story to tell in Season 2.

  • menevets

    Great to see the show get some props. But, you should have posted this as it aired!

About the author

Rob LeFebvreAnchorage, Alaska-based freelance writer and editor Rob LeFebvre is Cult of Mac's Culture Editor. He has contributed to various tech, gaming and iOS sites, including 148Apps, VentureBeat, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to find Rob on Twitter @roblef

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