Sunday, July 20, 2014

AMC Sunday: Halt and Catch Fire

What’s a network to do 
when the great shows go?

     AMC (formerly American Movie Classics, though they mainly showed the second-rate) took off in 2007 with Mad Men.  It was their highly successful attempt to become a buzzed about cable network in the manner of FX and follow the premium cable networks HBO and Showtime, which had pioneered the magic formula a decade earlier.  The “open sesame” is an original series that few actually watch, but critics, bloggers, and loyal fans can’t stop talking about such as Oz, The Sopranos, Rescue Me, Six Feet Under, The Shield, Queer as Folk, etc.

Megan and Don at Howard Johnson
     Unlike those programs, Mad Men was a period piece and it seemed literary.  I always thought it was as if a John Cheever novel had been turned into television and, as it’s progressed chronologically, it feels like a John Updike novel.  From the
first episode, I was arrested by the attention to period detail and how professional culture was tied so closely to the history of the 1960s.  The writing, acting, directing and, most tellingly, the art direction pretty much outclassed any other drama since The Sopranos had gone off the air.  

Cranston and Paul of Breaking Bad
     AMC followed up within four months with Breaking Bad, which became a contemporary cultural milestone.  I appreciate its artistic excellence and admire its acting, but I gave up after three episodes because I have blinders on about anything to do with drugs.  Others hate sex, violence, profanity in popular culture; I hate drugs.  Two and a half years later saw the premiere of The Walking Dead, a huge hit for AMC, though its viewing numbers wouldn’t have kept it on the air for more than six weeks when there were only the major networks.  Part of its initial popularity was because it was based on a great graphic novel series.  Viewing numbers have increased because it’s horror, which has grown in cultural significance since Stephen King pushed it centrally into the mainstream in the late 1970s.

     Breaking Bad ended and Mad Men ends next year, though I think it might have been stronger to end it a year ago.  AMC hopes for a replacement on Sunday nights, first with Turn, a Revolutionary War spy drama that didn’t grab me, and now with Halt and Catch Fire, which premiered the beginning of June.  It’s not based on an earlier work and it’s a period drama about the work/family spheres of its characters.  At this point, it’s a mixed bag, which makes it very different from those other three earlier shows, which electrified audiences and caught fire immediately.

McNairy and Pace of Halt and Catch Fire
     Set in Dallas in 1983 at the dawn of the personal computer revolution, it stars Lee Pace, who has proven his broad range in Soldier’s Girl (2003) and Pushing Daisies (2007 – 2009) as Joe MacMillan.  He worked at IBM, but disappeared for a year before hitting an armadillo with his early ‘80s Porsche while on his way to bulldoze his way into Cardiff Electric.  He proposes a more powerful and lighter carry-able computer.  Unlike Don Draper, Joe MacMillan isn’t so much mysterious as alternately obstreperous and then obstinate.  It’s not Pace’s fault; he does everything he can with the character.  

Mackenzie Davis
     The primary supporting actors – Scoot McNairy as the decent, dull Sancho to Pace’s Quixote, Kerry Bishé as McNairy’s onscreen wife who works at Texas Instruments and has to mask her brilliance behind household duties, Mackenzie Davis as the wild child programmer, and Toby Huss as the pragmatic head of Cardiff, who might be that proverbial armadillo – are uniformly excellent, but the characters are two-dimensional.  Davis seems like a computer geek’s or middle-aged straight man’s fantasy and I don’t remember any college female sporting that hairstyle in 1983.  Jean Smart, one of the wittiest performers to ever grace the medium (I still remember the first time I saw her, which was a guest shot on The Facts of Life where she injected more real emotion into ten minutes than anyone ever did the rest of the eight seasons), showed up as a guest star and lent an edge and aura that heightened the writing, but I doubt her character will return and that’s a major shame.

     The two major problems are the era and the profession.  Yes, it looks like the early 1980s, but the clothing, hairstyles, interior design, automobiles, and lighting of that time were pretty unattractive and certainly not anything anyone would seriously revive in the fashion world.  Planning ad campaigns and organizing an illegal drug business are inherently more intriguing dramatically than building a computer and writing lots of code.  It’s not as if many – if any – could understand the code anyway since it usually gets wiped out at least once an episode.  The animal imagery (armadillo in the first five minutes, a struggling to survive bird in the third episode) engaged with greater thematic relevance than almost anything else so far.

     Postscript:  The later episode further developed the characters played by McNairy, Bishé, and Davis, especially the relationship between the women.  This direction will only strengthen the relevance of this show.  Jamie Pachino, a Chicago playwright and colleague of mine from college, who serves as the Executive Story Editor is already building greater interest into the plot.  Her work is cut out for her, but this show has potential.

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