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

IBM5150

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.

lee-paceLee Pace will play Joe.

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.

  • kevin thomas

    Nice review, Carson. I’m liking your TV Tuesdays more and more. Story-wise this doesn’t sound like my cup of tea but I’d love to read it purely for educational purposes. That being said, it certainly sounds like something up AMC’s alley.

  • leitskev

    Just want to say thanks for the review. Probably should say it more often. These insights are helpful and do influence me while I’m working, so I do check in every day. I don’t always agree with the observations, but I am always stimulated to think by them. Thanks.

  • Ambrose*

    Carson, was there a newsletter this week?

    • Poe_Serling

      No newsletter… so far. It’s been kind of a willy-nilly week around here. Perhaps Carson and Ms. SS are planning a kick-ass Halloween extravaganza for the AOW and beyond.

      • Ambrose*

        Thanks, Poe. I thought I was out in the cold.
        Maybe the newsletter took a back seat to Carson scarfing down too many of his favorite In-And-Out burgers.

        Carson,
        Eat with one hand, type with the other.

      • klmn

        I think Carson may be more interested in going trick-or-treating.

  • ripleyy

    Really cool review. I *love* these TV pilot reviews. I’m also a huge fan of “Hell on Wheels”. It’s modest, but I think it’s a really good show with plenty of potential.

    “Halt” seems promising, but will it make it past the important “season two” mark?

  • Citizen M

    I never heard of a company called Cardiff-Giant. I’m pretty sure it’s fictional. It might be based on another hyphenated company, Singer-Friden, which tried to move from sewing machines to computers and ended an expensive failure. Every man and his dog was trying to get into computers in those days. Eventually the Taiwanese out-competed them all.

    • klmn

      IIRC, Compaq was the first real competitor to IBM. Bill Gates told them how to reverse engineer their BIOS (not sure I’m using the correct term) to avoid copyright laws.

      • klmn

        Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the matter.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compaq

        …In November 1982 Compaq announced their first product, the Compaq Portable, a portableIBM PC compatible personal computer. It was released in March 1983 at $2995, considerably more affordable than the Canadian Hyperion. The Compaq Portable was one of the progenitors of today’s laptop; some called it a “suitcase computer” for its size and the look of its case. It was the second IBM PC compatible, being capable of running all software that would run on an IBM PC. It was a commercial success, selling 53,000 units in its first year and generating $111 million in sales revenue. The Compaq Portable was the first in the range of the Compaq Portable series. Compaq was able to market a legal IBM clone because IBM mostly used “off the shelf” parts for their PC. Furthermore, Microsoft had kept the right to license the operating system to other computer manufacturers. The only part which had to be duplicated was the BIOS, which Compaq did legally by using clean room reverse engineering at a cost of $1 million.[15][16][17] Phoenix Technologies would shortly follow their lead, but soon “clone BIOSes” were available from many other companies who reverse engineered IBM’s design, then sold their version to the PC clone manufacturers.

  • drifting in space

    It’s weird they would use a fake computer company going up against a real one. Has this pilot been shot already? I have a feeling IBM would shut down any use of their name.

    Then again, I’m not familiar with bird law or various other lawyerings.

    • drifting in space

      As a follow up: With the limited success of the Steve Jobs movie (in the same vein, I’d say), will anyone watch this?

    • BradZuhl

      Mad Men was about a fictional ad agency, but they used the names of real companies as their clients. So I’m not sure what the legality of it all is for entertainment purposes.

      • klmn

        I think as long as they don’t accuse IBM of a crime that they’re clear of libel (or slander) issues.

        • drifting in space

          That sounds accurate. I’m pretty excited to check it out.

  • klmn

    If anyone has the script, please send it to kenklmn AT yahoo dotcom.

    Thanks.

    • drifting in space

      Yeah, same here please. driftinginscripts at gmail dot com.

    • He_said_me_said

      Same here please send to He_Said_me_said@yahoo.com

  • Maggie Clancy

    Oooh I like the sound of this! Interested to see if AMC pursues it, if they truly do have 60 shows in development (dang!)

  • garrett_h

    Cantwell and Rogers sold an untitled action thriller spec yesterday. Now they’re being reviewed on ScriptShadow.

    Coincidence? I think not…

  • FDSY

    I really do love AMC’s shoes.

  • TruckDweller

    Sixty shows in development? I wonder how many are in a pile waiting to be read… with my script somewhere among them.

  • UrbaneGhoul

    It’s a slimy move by AMC to do that with Mad Men. I won’t even rant on it any further, I’ve moved on. I think Hell on Wheels problem wasn’t budgetary to me but lack of focus. There was more focus on world building and establishing a mythology than on the story. They’ve actually improved on that end, it’s not gotten better but not gotten worse, IMO.

    This is a period show but 1980s might be easier to replicate than a western or 60s America.

  • wlubake

    I’d have to think this is a rise and fall story. IBM is the first opponent, with Dell on the horizon. Sounds cool The world needs more Lee Pace, IMO.

  • JW

    I like the suggestion of the question mark characters and think that is one of the most sound proposals to take away from this. I think these are what make an audience tune in and I have to say I don’t know why they aren’t used more. I think they were used to greatest effect in LOST. The setup of practically every character on that show was built around their question mark, only amplifying the ultimate question of why they were there, would/could they get off and what would happen after? I see ‘The Blacklist’ using it now in the form of Spader’s character (not to mention the main character’s husband) and I like it. I think the level of suspense when this is properly executed is amazing.
    What is it about the “bad boy” character who has the propensity to do good that is so intriguing? Someone should ask Dexter.

  • fragglewriter

    AMC has 60 shows in development? That’s interesting and scary at the same time. I think writing TV would be more pressure than writing a spec as a network could replace a series mid-season.

    “Hell on Wheels” was ok, but I stopped watching after about 6 episodes. It needed more edge, which I’m not really too sure if it ever got to that point.

    Even though it sounds somewhat boring, I might check out the pilot episode. I think as more writers are involved in the series, the plot points will be better explained.

    That what I learned is definitely good. I have 2 possibly 3 in my script, which I hope fits.

  • Ken

    I really liked AMC’s RUBICON. Shame it was cancelled.

  • TheRealMWitty

    Loved this. I’ve worked with a few guys who were PC salesmen during this era, and they’ve always talked about that time with such reverence.

    Conflict everywhere here. For example, instead of just having the misfits quit triumphantly or get fired on principle to go on and take over the world on their own, the writers trap them at the old firm — in fact, our heroes and Cardiff Giant are shackled to each other by this new endeavor. And the stakes? Not just a couple of smart guys will have to go back to their day jobs, but they’ll take down an entire company if they fail! Such a great read, and so much to learn here. Best script Carson has reviewed in quite some time!

  • klmn

    I finished reading it. I won’t identify who sent it to me without his permission.

    [X} Worth the read.

    NEEDS KILLER ROBOTS.

    • J•E•B

      Feel free to share the anonymous wealth

      jonboyer at mac dot com

    • A Tribe Called Guest

      I’d love a copy (if possible) too, please! shmilarious at gmail dot com

  • Kirkusm

    I’m actually working on a similar TV script. It’s called SUPERUSER. I built a website with info about it. Here’s a link: http://superusr.com/ It asks what if Steve Jobs were Tony Soprano. Love any feedback from the scriptshadow community on it.

  • A Tribe Called Guest

    Re the “weird” legal loophole; the lawyer explains in the script that starting the PC division was a strategy provided by Joe himself.

    So Joe *still* orchestrated it, no?

    In any case I thought this pilot was great and will be tuning in.