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June 23rd 2014 1:39 pm

Halt and Catch Fire: Sweet dreams are made out of PC clones and threats of litigation, apparently

Now that we're four episodes into the first season, perhaps it's time to talk about AMC's latest drama, Halt and Catch Fire. If you haven't heard, it's a show about three people -- a con man, a riot grrrl coder, and a family man engineer—who are trying to create an IBM clone PC that is faster and cheaper and more portable than Big Blue's machines. Well, as portable as you can get in 1983 -- the show (presumably) draws chuckles from its 2014 audience every time "15 pounds" is cited as the target weight.

Due to its historical setting the show has inevitably drawn comparisons to AMC's other big period piece, with some outlets even calling it the "new" or "trying to capitalize on the success of" Mad Men. But that's really a superficial comparison, as beyond a period setting the two are very dissimilar in style. For one, Halt and Catch Fire is not as insufferable about its setting and our future knowledge as Mad Men is -- I've found that the first season of Mad Men has a lot of lines like, "Colored people working in advertising? That's crazy!" The show hoped to amuse us by pointing the idiotic bigotries of the time, a move I always found puzzling as there were already a good number of women, black people, and gay individuals working openly in the advertising industry at the time. Halt and Catch Fire, in its first episodes at least, has managed to avoid excessive period love/mockery, though I found Joe's comment in last night's episode about Cameron being a girl -- "you don't find that every day" -- just eyerollingly awful. But maybe it works because Joe is supposed to be awful.

And there's our big difference between the two, really—the protagonists. Even as Mad Men has expanded its focus to show us more of the lives of Peggy, Roger, Pete, Joan, et al., the show is still undeniably Don Draper's story. But despite casting Lee Pace and his gigantic eyebrows as Joe MacMillan, Joe is not the main character. Halt and Catch Fire sort of revolves around its three lead characters -- Joe, Cameron, and Gordon— but between all three, Gordon is the one who has gotten the most character development. Cameron is painted as the punk college dropout who doesn't want to end up "repairing VCRs for $3.25 an hour," while Joe has become even more inscrutable as episodes go on, especially after his big Joker-esque scene in episode 2 -- "Do you want to know how I got these scars?" All his manipulation and bullshit has placed him squarely into the supervillain role.

Which is why Gordon might really be the center of the show here -- we've met his family and his co-workers, and we've heard about his past as the creator of the failed Symphonic computer. I've seen AMC described as the network of "the existential angst of middle-aged men and their wives that everyone inexplicably hates" and while superficially the show touches against that, it's not really true. The big difference -- I don't hate his wife, Donna Clark. In fact, I think she might be the best character on the show.

Donna defies expectations by not slipping into the role of "nagging wife who just doesn't understand." She does understand, and she's been supportive -- to a point. She's been established as an accomplished engineer in her own right, who has taken a secondary career role not due to lack of skill, but due to the need to juggle work and family life. If last night's episode (and episode 3, actually) established anything, it might be that she's an even better engineer than Gordon.

To that point, every episode to this point has passed the Bechdel Test. For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test is a measure of female representation in a work. Basically, there are three criteria a piece of media must fulfill to pass the test:
  1. There must be at least two named women characters
  2. ...who talk to each other...
  3. ...about something other than a man.
Basically, if a movie or TV show has enough women with something meaningful to contribute to the plot, then it should pass handily. (Note that this isn't a measure of how sexist a work is, as there are plenty of great movies that don't pass that we would never dismiss as being hateful to women, like Gravity).

The reason I've been keeping score for Halt and Catch Fire is because of what they talk about -- the conversations have largely been about technology. For a show about an industry lambasted for its paucity of women in meaningful positions and the female-unfriendly environment that persists even today, I've found it rather refreshing and incredibly promising for the future of the show.

With the promise of more Donna, and eventually finding out what the hell is Joe's issue, I'll probably stay the course and finish up the season. While certain things could be more clear (I'm still vague about the legal issues that drive the show's premise, for example), and Joe's deceptions might overshadow the other characters and rob them of needed development (Cameron still feels like bit of a shell), there's enough of a framework to build a really intriguing tale in Halt and Catch Fire.

How has the show been treating you? What plots have interested you the most, and who are your favorite characters? How does it compare to other shows for you? And seriously, what is the deal with Joe?


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I've very much enjoyed my foray into HaCF, particularly the dynamic surrounding Joe's time away from IBM. I'm very much looking forward to the further explanation of his motives in working tirelessly to destroy his former company.

A few days ago I read a pretty scathing review (www.columbusalive.com­/content­/stories­/2014­/05­/29­/t...) that highlights the author's perceived weaknesses of the show - mainly that its attempts to dramatize the 80s computer movement results in melodrama instead of good TV. I disagree with this notion, and really believe that trying to make this topic interesting to the masses is fundamentally difficult. Was there this much sex, drugs, and rock n' roll during the tech boom? Probably not. Does it help make the show interesting? Absolutely.

I think the main characters are all great, and I particularly enjoy the dynamic created through their necessitated separation. It makes Cameron's struggles interesting on their own, but even more interesting when compared to how they affect Gordon's storyline.

The show has promise, but more than that, I'm just excited to see something so intellectual get made in the age of Duck Dynasty and Pawn Stars.
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I've read a lot of books about the history of video games, and I think it was The Ultimate History of Video Games that mentioned that Atari had a collections jar for unwanted pregnancies back in the '70s.

However, Atari, like many other companies, went corporate so it's safe to assume things had gotten a lot more HR-friendly by 1983.
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