AMC’s rookie show is a capable replacement for Mad Men
There was a time when the personal computer was still a novelty in American households. AMC’s rookie drama Halt and Catch Fire perfectly captures the zeitgeist of that era before names like Microsoft and Apple toppled IBM’s dominance of the computer market. The intelligent period drama is a real winner in its debut season about three maverick personalities coming together to usher in the PC era. Its ten episodes are proof that the best Hollywood entertainment these days is being made as serialized television on cable. Halt and Catch Fire reaffirms that Hollywood can still make compelling drama when it doesn’t feel the need to dumb everything down for the masses.
The year is 1983 and a PC revolution is brewing in Texas’s Silicon Prairie, the home to companies like Texas Instruments. An outsider from the stodgy corporate world of IBM shows up with a grand scheme at Cardiff Electric, a sleepy computer services firm. Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is the Steve Jobs of this story, a business visionary and an extraordinary salesman. He wants to reverse-engineer the IBM personal computer and clone it, producing a PC that can do everything an IBM can do. To achieve his vision Joe forms a partnership of sorts with a once-promising engineer at Cardiff Electric, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Clark is the frazzled family man that will actually attempt to meet Joe’s outrageous goal with his extensive technical background in computer hardware. The last piece of the puzzle is a young firebrand prodigy, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). She’s the wild punk genius that also happens to be an extremely gifted programmer. Things get messy when Joe and Cameron start having a fling.
Halt and Catch Fire is great at fleshing out its complex characters. Gordon Clark is the failed computer inventor with domestic problems weighing him down. Gordon’s wife Donna has to manage her own career while holding their family together, putting stress on her and the kids. Cameron is the punk rebel with attitude, somehow escaping in the process becoming a common stereotype. She is incredibly brilliant at programming code but finds normal people almost incomprehensible. I’ve saved the best character for last, the figure that makes this show go. A thinly-veiled homage to Steve Jobs, Joe is a fantastic project manager but completely hollow on the inside as a person. He is willing to say or do anything to get the job done.
Lee Pace is brilliant in his role as the visionary leader of this rag-tag group, prodding people and manipulating them to their breaking point. The charismatic character gets results but what dark issues bubble under the surface that may threaten to destroy everyone’s dream? A special mention should be made for Toby Huss, who breathes life into the small supporting role of John Bosworth. A company man for 22 years at Cardiff Electric, the older Texas businessman gets swept up in Joe’s PC dream. It is that kind of added character texture that helps keep this season grounded.
Halt and Catch Fire is never caught playing fast and loose with computer history
Halt and Catch Fire is never caught playing fast and loose with computer history
Halt and Catch Fire is a taut, unpredictable ten episodes. AMC likely didn’t want to gamble on a bigger order for a new series but the showrunners have crafted ten entertaining episodes without any filler. One of this show’s best attributes is the sheer level of authenticity in its technology and period design. Many shows would probably wave away a lot of the technical details about PCs and the computer industry. The drama is constructed around the technology in this case, it is hard separating one from the other. Halt and Catch Fire is never caught playing fast and loose with computer history, despite being a fictionalized account of characters that weren’t actually people.
The only problem with Halt and Catch Fire is the pilot episode, probably the poorest scripted episode in the season. I initially passed on the show after seeing its first episode on AMC. It felt slow and overly flashy for what was supposed to be a period drama about the early PC revolution. It quickly ramps up after that lone stumble. This is one drama worth sticking with even if you don’t think it’s much after an episode or two. Halt and Catch Fire is for those smarter viewers looking for a well-done drama on the early PC revolution and what it took to get IBM clones on the market.
Many shows broadcast on AMC have cut corners on filming for financial reasons, most notably The Walking Dead. Halt and Catch Fire might be the most impressive looking series I’ve seen on the network. Extra care has been taken to ensure crisp picture quality. Starz has generously spread the ten episodes over three BD-50s, resulting in a stellar AVC video encode at excellent parameters. Framed in a fairly standard 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio replicating its original cable broadcast, Halt and Catch Fire has one of the best video presentations on Blu-ray seen in recent memory from a cable series.
The period drama is sharp with a tremendous amount of detail. Almost entirely shot on studio sets, the 1080P video has outstanding contrast and rich black levels. The transfer is technically perfect, leaving the pristine video free of major and minor artifacts.
A fairly nuanced color palette has two dominant tonal shifts. Earthier tones suffuse the dreary home life of Gordon Clark, while the offices of Cardiff Electric have a much colder push with steely grays. It is a mature approach to the cinematography that certainly makes Halt and Catch Fire set in a distinctive era. The production design helps to convincingly add in the period’s fashions and decor. The series believably looks and feels like we’ve traveled to 1983.
If a basic cable series ever deserved a Blu-ray release, it is Halt and Catch Fire. This set provides exceptional picture quality in sparkling clarity that easily surpasses the bit-starved broadcast episodes.
At its core Halt and Catch Fire is a dialogue-driven drama but the show strives to spruce things up with a smattering of period music. The selections range from punk, a favorite of Cameron’s as she codes by herself, to Joe’s more sophisticated New York tastes. Presented in a fine-sounding 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, the audio design has some heft in its bass and enough surround support for the tasteful ambient music. Dialogue is cleanly recorded and the mix is nicely balanced across the front soundstage. It lacks the flashier panning and surround cues one hears from theatrical features but is generally excellent for a television series.
Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles have been provided in a white font.
A well-made set of special features have been included for Halt and Catch Fire, rounded out by a few valuable bonuses. The meat of them are breakdowns by the cast and crew for each episode. A very fancy slipcase with raised lettering holds the normal-sized Blu-ray case. An UltraViolet digital copy for the entire season can be redeemed on your favorite UV retailer in HDX. It is a handsome package and one of the few television sets of recent vintage necessary for fans.
All special features have been placed on disc three. A play-all feature is available for episodes on each disc, remembering where you last watched.
Re-Making the 80’s (03:33 in HD) – The cast and crew discuss the show’s period and how it was brought to reality for this series. Covering production design and fashion, the featurette is brief but enjoyable as the participants reminisce about their memories of the era.
Rise of the Digital Cowboys (02:57 in HD) – This featurette handles the basic setting and its background, Silicon Prairie in Dallas. Away from the action in California and New York, these early computer pioneers had their own culture.
Setting the Fire: Research and Technology (05:47 in HD) – Actor Lee Pace and others go in depth on the attention to detail about the show’s technology. The showrunners explain how consultants were brought in to make sure the actors weren’t faking the technology and using it incorrectly.
Inside Episode 101 (05:44 in HD), Inside Episode 102 (05:04 in HD), Inside Episode 103 (05:02 in HD), Inside Episode 104 (05:15 in HD), Inside Episode 105 (05:09 in HD), Inside Episode 106 (05:21 in HD), Inside Episode 107 (05:26 in HD), Inside Episode 108 (05:13 in HD), Inside Episode 109 (06:13 in HD), Inside Episode 110 (06:08 in HD) – This is a nice deconstruction of each episode from various cast and crew members. Pairing these featurettes with each episode instead of placing all on them on the last disc would have made more sense. Adding them all together, this is nearly an hour of lucid material explaining major themes and characterization choices.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.