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Is AMC's 'Halt and Catch Fire' the next 'Mad Men'?

Published May 30, 2014 11:55 am

Television • AMC is betting on drama about computer wars.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Halt and Catch Fire" shows every indication of being the best thing to hit AMC in years — and it's been a while since something really good debuted on AMC.

The cable channel that reimagined itself by bringing us "Mad Men" (2007-), "Breaking Bad" (2008-13) and "The Walking Dead" (2010-) has made it look as if those successful series were, to some degree, beginner's luck. AMC is riding a long string of creative and ratings disappointments.

• "Rubicon" (2010) sank without a trace after 10 episodes, leaving barely a ripple.

• "The Killing" (2011-13) limped through three seasons, never quite the show it tried to be. (Season 4 will be on Netflix.)

• "Hell on Wheels" (2011-) has been a low-rated creative mess.

• "Low Winter Sun" (2013) also sank without a trace after 10 episodes.

• "Turn" (2014) has been surprisingly dull. It's doubtful there will be a second season.

AMC needs a hit. Badly. And "Halt and Catch Fire," which premieres Sunday night, just might be it.

Set in the early 1980s, it's about the early days of the personal-computer industry. But, like all great TV drama, it's really about the characters.

"Our three unlikely characters, a visionary, an engineer and a prodigy, they risk it all in the race to dominate the personal-computer industry," said AMC president Chuck Collier.

This new show clearly wants to be to the 1980s computer industry what "Mad Men" is to 1960s advertising. There's a definite "Mad Men" vibe, with a bit of a "Breaking Bad" feel thrown in.

The first minute of the show — complete with an armadillo-vs.-car encounter — looks like something lifted right out of "Bad." (And executive producers Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein are indeed veterans of that show.)

"Halt's" version of Don Draper is Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace, "Pushing Daisies"), an arrogant sales guy who left undisputed industry leader IBM and set out to build a rival.

"Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing," he says.

He lands at Cardiff Electric in Texas, where he butts heads with company exec John Bosworth (Toby Huss). Joe recruits Gordon (Scoot McNairy), a computer engineer and family man who feels he's better than his rather low-level job — but his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), isn't so sure. Gordon doesn't really trust Joe, but he helps him reverse-engineer an IBM PC with the goal of improving on it and beating the computer giant at its own game.

This does not please IBM, of course.

The third member of the team is Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a 22-year-old computer whiz with a serious attitude. Shortly after she meets Joe, she's having sex with him. And, yes, he's a jerk.

"This doesn't mean you get the job," Joe says.

"Wow," Cameron replies angrily. "You mean we're not in love?"

By the way, "Halt and Catch Fire" is "an early computer term command that sent the machine into a race condition, forcing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained."

Which tells us something about where this show is going.

Whether "Halt and Catch Fire" gets the job as the successor to "Mad Men" remains to be seen. The first episode is a promising start.

We know that "Mad Men" is going off the air after its final seven episodes, set to air in 2015. There won't be a spinoff. There will be a "Breaking Bad" spinoff — the prequel, "Better Call Saul" — but that's an iffy proposition.

AMC's biggest tentpole show remains. "The Walking Dead" is going strong, and there's a spinoff of that show coming, too.

But the cable channel could really use another hit. And Collier is really hoping "Halt and Catch Fire" is it.

spierce@sltrib.com

Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

On TV

"Halt and Catch Fire" premieres Sunday at 8, 9:04 and 11:08 p.m. on AMC.