Genre: TV pilot
Premise: (from AMC) Set in the early 1980s, the series dramatizes the personal computing boom through the eyes of a visionary, an engineer and a prodigy whose innovations directly confront the corporate behemoths of the time. Their personal and professional partnership will be challenged by greed and ego while charting the changing culture in Texas’s Silicon Prairie.
About: This is one of the next big shows coming to AMC, the network that brought you Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. As for the writers, I’ve actually reviewed one of their scripts before and WOW have they improved. I thought their spec effort, The Knoll, was below par, with my main beef being that it was stick thin. But this is the polar opposite. Very rich and detailed and deep. Good job guys!
Writers: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers
Details: 64 pages
Breaking Bad is over. Mad Men has only one season left (well, two halves of one season actually – in a sly or slimy move, depending on who you talk to). Which leads to the inevitable question, what does the network producing the best shoes on television have next? Word on the street (or from a Google search) says that AMC has over 60 shows in development. So they’ve got plenty of potential successors. “Halt and Catch Fire” is first trying to take the baton. Will it succeed? Let’s find out.
It’s 1981. You know, when E.T. came out? When Michael Jackson had only a couple of facial reconstruction surgeries in the rear-view mirror (the MAN in the rear-view mirror)? And when the personal computer was just starting to hit the world. Computer systems salesman Joe Macmillan is someone who knows the PC boom is coming. The problem is he’s also suicidal, and actually drives his car off a cliff in the opening scene in an attempt to meet his maker. But he survives. Bummer. Or not bummer?
Joe, who used to work at IBM (and hated it), decides to use this second chance to take over the PC industry. He’s heard of this computer innovator named Gordon Clark, a bar-brawling family man (yeah!) who spends his nights pulling apart and putting back together Atari 2600s. Joe specifically comes to IBM rival Cardiff-Giant (at the time just a software company) to work with Gordon. His goal? To build a PC that’s better and cheaper than IBM’s.
And that’s exactly what they do (with a lot of resistance on Gordon’s part). They take one of IBM’s PCs and they reverse engineer it. Which is kind of a legal no-no. But Joe doesn’t stop there. He actually CALLS IBM and tells them that he did it. Which gets every lawyer within 5 miles of IBM’s headquarters together to take down Cardiff. What’s going on? Is Joe trying to destroy his own company?
Not exactly. In a somewhat difficult-to-understand development, the only way for Cardiff to avoid getting sued into bankruptcy is to pretend like they were working on a PC all along. This forces Cardiff’s top brass to allow Joe to head up the PC side of the company, where he of course brings with him Gordon, and a plucky (yet attractive!) young computer genius from a nearby university, Cameron. The three will do the impossible. They will take on the biggest computer corporation in the world and try to beat them at their own game – making PCs.
Well, I don’t really know what I just read. I just know it was good! Almost an impressive. See, here’s what has me tripped up. This is a show about a company called “Cardiff-Giant” competing with titan IBM in the early days of the personal computer business. The thing is, I’ve never heard of Cardiff-Giant. Are they an also-ran company that eventually succumbed to IBM? Did Cardiff-Giant merge into some other famous company that’s still alive today? Or is this all just fiction? I mean, the Cardiff Giant IS one of the most famous hoaxes in history – a ten foot tall mummified man. So is the company title a hint that there’s more to this show than meets the eye? I don’t know!
Luckily, this is a really well-written pilot with a lot of good stuff going on. The first thing you notice about “Halt” is the irony (always use irony in your ideas if possible guys!). This is the computer business, a place where we expect dorks to huddle in their closets and basements and build computer boards. Which does happen here. But one of our two leads starts bar fights and the other is a ruthless closer that would make Alec Baldwin’s character on Glengary Glenn Ross feel like a spineless chump. These don’t feel like the geeky techies we associate with this industry, instantly giving the show some edge.
And Chris and Chris not only built those characters ironically, but used them to instill a lot of the conflict that drives the script. Joe is a suicidal dick who never takes no for an answer, and Gordon is a frustrated family man who isn’t afraid to tell someone to fuck off. The two don’t really like each other (or each others’ contrasting styles) and that adds a lot of fire to their scenes. Conflict, conflict, conflict people. It’s the oldest dramatic tool in the book. It’s gotta feel natural (you can’t force it) but if you set the characters up right and they’re naturally butting up against each other, the scenes will write themselves.
And the script just made some cool choices along the way. One of the easiest ways for me to spot a bad writer is to read a scene play out the exact way I’ve seen it play out 6000 times before. Only the good writers say, “How can I do this differently?”
There’s a scene early on where Joe needs an engineer for their group. So he goes to the local college to look for one. Now it’s important to see how this scene would’ve been written by a bad writer. We probably would’ve shown a professor type lecturing his students, and then a particularly difficult question would’ve been posed that stumped everyone, and our plucky young student, Cameron, would’ve answered it in an unexpectedly clever way. Joe would’ve been waiting in the wings, witnessing this, then caught up to Cameron afterwards and asked if he could talk to her.
Here’s how the scene went instead. Joe works his way in front of the class and tells everyone who wants to be an engineer to raise their hand. He’s going to list off several categories. Every time he lists a category they don’t have experience in, they have to lower their hands. He lists a bunch of stuff (electrical engineering, software design, microprocessing, etc.) and each time, more and more hands go down until there are three left. Of those three, he asks each to tell him one thing that will be true about computers 10 years from now. They each give their answer. Cameron ends up giving the best one. Macmillan says, “See me after class.”
I haven’t seen that scene before. And those scenes don’t just come to you off the top of your head. You have to fight for them. You have to go through a couple of cliché scenes until you find them. And the writers who are willing to put forth that extra effort and find that fresh take on a scene are typically the ones who succeed.
Speaking of Cameron, I loved how the Chris’s added ANOTHER layer of conflict within this three-person team. Later on, after Joe discovers Cameron, he gets drunk and sleeps with her. Realizing he screwed up everything, he ditches her the next morning. Later, however, when he becomes in charge of Cardiff’s PC division, he needs that engineer still. So he must go groveling back to this girl that hates him and ask her to join the team. She reluctantly does, and now we’ve got one big unhappy family.
We also have a boss who hates Joe. We have a rival (his old boss from IBM) who hates Joe. Everyone seems to hate these guys. And that’s PERFECT for a show because it creates drama. It creates resistance. It creates conflict. That’s what you need!
Now not everything is blueberries and soft shell tacos here. I had a couple of issues. Gordon’s character was inconsistent. He starts off as this guy who beats people up in bars. But when he meets Joe, he becomes meek. This tends to happen when you try and create two alpha males. In the scenes, one of them has to become dominant, and by association, the other’s going to disappear a little. However, Gordon disappeared too much. I liked him better when he would beat somebody’s ass. I hope they go with that guy in the show.
And also, this pilot was so heading for an impressive before the “Cardiff PC Division” plot point. This whole time, Joe looked like he was cleverly orchestrating this really cool plan that was going to outsmart everyone – an outsmarting I was dying to see – but it turns out they sort of accidentally get asked to start this new PC division because of a weird legal loophole that was never clearly explained. It drives me NUTS when major plot points are fudged over by unclear plot developments. I was hoping for more there.
Still, everything else here was top notch. Is it the next Breaking Bad? Too early to tell. I gave AMC show Hell on Wheels the same grade I’m giving this and thought it was headed for big things. But that show was bigger than AMC was capable of making it. It needed Boardwalk Empire dollars to do it justice. “Halt” doesn’t require a big production budget, so it will be all about the characters and the story. They’ve got some cool characters. Let’s see where the story goes from here.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: QUESTION MARK CHARACTERS – In a lot of good TV shows, you have characters who are question marks. You don’t know what they’re capable of or what they’ll do. You need to almost present them as ticking time bombs, waiting to explode. Here we have one protagonist who’s willing to beat the shit out of people (and get beat up) if they get in his way, and another who drives his car off a cliff at the beginning of the show, trying to commit suicide. Those are two big question mark characters if you ask me.