The time is right for a good tech-industry drama, though it’s tough to imagine how a contemporary show could compete with the real thing. The guy who produced “Straight Outta Compton” just announced he’d become a billionaire via some other musician’s Instragram when Apple bought his headphones company and streaming service, for god’s sake. Beat that, screenwriters.
Of course, Mad Men gave it a shot this season, with the introduction of a computer into the heretofore analog world of Sterling Cooper & Partners. It gave Matthew Weiner license to reference 2001 a lot, and drove one of the most memorable supporting characters on the show memorably insane. AMC, which advertised Halt and Catch Fire heavily during Mad Men before giving the new show its predecessor’s time slot, actually combined footage from the two in the ads. It was like a product rollout: From the people who brought you this really good workplace drama about an industry on the verge of tremendous cultural changes comes another show about the same thing, only 15 years later!
But on “I/O,” the pilot episode for Halt and Catch Fire, that’s about all that is. Beautifully costumed and creatively soundtracked to match its 1983 timeframe, it centers not on done-to-death scenes for historical fiction like Mad Ave. or Wall Street, but on the Silicon Prairie — Texas’ answer to more cosmopolitan hotbeds of IT innovation. The setting’s potentially fascinating. The characters who inhabit it, however, have all the definition of a 1983 computer screen.
Our main man is Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), an East Coast ex-IBM hotshot who we first meet when he runs over an armadillo in his speeding sportscar. He regards the roadkill with a smirk, no doubt thinking it’s a highly symbolic enactment of what he’s about to do to the computer biz. (All you’ll think is, “Christ, what an asshole.”) This impression is done no favors when he attempts to woo talented young programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) by alternately patronizing her (“Are you afraid to give me a straight answer?” “You’ve got a lot of excuses.”) and banging her from behind in the stockroom of a bar. This is before the opening credits roll, by the way.
Maybe you can already see the problem here: Who gives a shit about another master-of-the-universe type treating his industry of choice and everyone in it like Tony Montana’s proverbial giant chicken just waiting to get plucked? (We’re using the dialogue as it would air on AMC, of course.) Sure, Lee Pace is a handsome guy – he has the face of an ecstatic saint in a Renaissance portrait – but we’ve been watching Jon Hamm perfect this routine for seven years now. Halt runs into the same problem the nascent personal-computer industry it chronicles is facing: Why innovate when it’s so much easier to duplicate? Complete with a mysterious past, and an opening title card that explains the name of the show! Something got reverse-engineered here, but I think Matt Weiner should be more worried than IBM.
The protagonist isn’t the only seen-it-all-before character the show’s struggling with. His apparent foil, Cameron, is almost too period-accurate, in that she could have been plucked directly from a bad Eighties computer comedy. You can tell she’s a badass who plays by her own rules because she walks into class late with her walkman blaring, complete with a sarcastic “Glad you could join us” from visiting lecturer Joe. She’s got short hair, an Army jacket, a bad attitude, and not one iota of surprise – the kind of character who yells “Fascist!” as she gets thrown out of an arcade for rigging the coin slot. She does at least have the decency to mock Joe’s gross “This doesn’t mean you’ll get the job” while they fuck; if only one of the writers had done the same and cut the line entirely.
Joe’s primary mission in this episode, it turns out, is to deceive everyone at mid-tier player Cardiff Electronics: Deceive Bosworth (a terrific Toby Huss), the Senior VP of Sales, into hiring him based off all the zeroes on his last W-2 (shades of The Wolf of Wall Street). Deceive talented but underutilized and alcoholic family-man engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) into helping him reverse-engineer an IBM PC in order to land Cardiff on the hook for whatever they did while employees. Deceive the entire company into pretending to IBM and the Feds like they’d been trying to develop their own PC all along, rather than admit McMillan’s guilt and get sued out of existence by Big Blue.
Mission accomplished, it seems. Gordon spends the episode dealing with the show’s standard-issue Long-Suffering Wife character (Donna, played by the talented Kerry Bishé) as she protests his involvment (though the show at least has the good sense to introduce her as she bails Gordon out from the drunk tank – tough for Bad Fans to call her a bitch when her first act is to spring her husband from jail). By the end she’s come around, and her past experience indicates she may even wind up a player on her own. The episode ends with a solid shot (you’ve seen it in the commercials) of our three heroes, Joe, Cameron, and Gordon, peering through an office window at the phalanx of IBM suits deployed to destroy them if they make a single mistake. As they paraded through Cardiff’s tiny office to the technopop tune of “Cirrus” by Bonobo, the sound and vision combine to communicate the sense of high adventure and high stakes.
It’s easy to feel satisfied by the final scene – until you reflect that all you really did was spend an hour watching somebody put the lives and livelihoods of everyone at this poor unsuspecting company at risk. In the waning days of capitalism, don’t we get enough of that from our IRL bosses? This cocky antihero’s just a villain. At this stage in the Prestige Drama game, he’s gotta be something more; the same goes for his show. “Computers aren’t the thing,” Joe says to Gordon, describing their shared vision of the networked world to come. “They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” Hopefully the same can be said of this pilot.