After Hours

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire reboots drama of the 1980s PC race

Halt and Catch Fire tells the story of an unlikely trio of engineers trying to reverse engineer an IBM computer and change the course of the PC industry.

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Left to right: Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace)
Image: James Minchin III/AMC

"Halt and Catch Fire" refers to an old computer command that forces all instructions to compete for superiority. Once this race condition is initiated, there's no getting back control of the computer.

This is the apt premise and metaphor for the new hour-long drama of the same name, premiering on Sunday, June 1 on AMC.

Halt and Catch Fire is a fictionalized story of the early days of the personal computer boom (1983, if we're to go by the presence of Return of the Jedi in the local movie theater). Former IBMer Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) turns up in Texas at Cardiff Electric, a maker of system software, and quickly targets sales executive and former engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to help him figure out how to reverse engineer an IBM computer.

MacMillan is all expensive suits and slick manipulation; Clark is a pile of mustard-colored 80s fashion, soaked in misery from a failed attempt at building a computer called Symphonic.

There's also Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a not-quite-graduated college student who is far smarter — and far angrier, for some yet-to-be-revealed reason — than the boys in her class. Out of prescience or because somebody couldn't help themselves, Howe hints at the internet within the first five minutes of the pilot "I/O."

These three, we assume, are going to try and be the ones who knock IBM off of its PC industry pedestal, while somehow not destroying Cardiff Electric in the process.

Part of the initial amusement factor derived from show is that the audience is automatically vested with an omniscience - we know what's going to happen. We have a historical view that unfolds along mile markers like dial-up noises and floppy disc drives, and dissolves into wireless internet connections, two-pound laptops and the cloud. So when Clark's wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) explains to their child how much space 128KB is (a lot!), it's a wink to the folks at home with 32GB smartphones.

Part of the challenge of the show will be navigating not just the easy and casual references (no risk in name-checking Commodore), but the more necessary and technical plot points.

"I thought it was well done, though not by anyone who ever worked in the computer industry," said Robert Cringely, tech journalist, documentarian, and early Apple employee. Though, he also said there's a certain expectation that a show tackling something like this- the nascency of computers, is probably not going to get everything right.

"You get used to the feeling it's not really real," said Cringely, author of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date.

Cringely also pointed out some of the loose connections between the fictionalization and actual history. For example, the first IBM clone was Compaq, but Cardiff Electric doesn't always follow the model. Compaq was in Houston, not Dallas, and the founders came mainly from Texas Instruments, not IBM. And between Compaq founder Ron Canion and Apple's Steve Jobs, Cringely said MacMillan favors the latter in his "Armani days," a reference to Jobs' stylishness in the 1990s before he settled on his iconic black turtleneck and jeans.

He also talked about the presentation of IBM. In the show, they're monolithic, and between them and Apple, the PC market is already sewn up, Clark bemoans in the pilot. Cringely remembers more of a sense that the market actually was growing.

"If I think to my friends who designed these computers that competed with the IBM PC, they were disappointed that the IBM PC wasn't a better piece of equipment. At the same time, they knew that their market was growing, and that there was room for plenty of success stories," he said.

And of those success stories, many of them were the IBM clones, like the one Clark and MacMillan wanted to make, and the characters do express a dissatisfaction that the IBM PC isn't more. "In that sense, the show is absolutely correct," Cringely said. "IBM helped create a market that it couldn't adequately serve."

So why make Halt and Catch Fire now? Cringely thinks it has to do with two things: The rise of geek culture (think HBO's Silicon Valley, Amazon's Betas), and natural nostalgia that comes with certain age points.

"We have people my age, now, who are in their 50s and 60, and we're looking back nostalgically at this industry and, frankly, even economy that we created, that didn't exist before," he said.

Techies are a critical bunch and many of the dramatizations of the technology industry have fallen flat and been met with scorn. Perhaps the most well-received drama about tech was TNT's Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999.

If Halt and Catch Fire can please the Sunday night drama crowd (and avoid getting too cute with the future gazing), as well as those harboring fond memories of their IBM PC clones, Joe MacMillan might end up being our new Don Draper - complicated, ethically confused, and a staple of the weekend viewing schedule.

Halt and Catch Fire will air Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC. However, the pilot is also streaming online for free through Sunday.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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