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Halt And Catch Fire
by Taper/Triad

The second season of Halt And Catch Fire is currently airing and the show has managed to attract a bit of a following since the first episodes were produced back in 2014. Still, it seems like the series has passed under the radar of many, also those normally interested in computer history. This article can be seen as an introduction to the show, making the argument that you should start watching it if you haven't already...

The series is set in the early 1980s and we follow different characters who all are associated with the immature computer industry in one way or another. There is the visionary businessman, the clever engineer and the programmer-prodigy who end up challenging the corporate behemoth of the time, IBM.

In those early days of the silicon revolution some very few large companies were challenged by small upstart firms, legal battles and wars of standardisation were common and the few early adopting consumers (both private and corporate) had a tough job deciding what horse to bet on. An expensive computer system could be worthless next week due to bankruptcy or simply because of lack of software. Tables could be turned in no time and the history of CP/M comes to mind. Once the dominant operating system and developed by the founder of Digital Research, Gary Kildall, it quickly fell from the throne and into oblivion when IBM decided to give Microsoft the upper hand in the early OS war. Why Commodore decided on CP/M for the C128 after it already lost all momentum is anyone's guess though, but that is a whole other story.

The basic premise for the first season revolves around Cardiff Electric, an electronics company where IBM-dropout Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) manage to get a job. Joe is the visionary businessman described above and has an enormous drive to conquer. He is basically also an asshole, which gets more and more apparent as the series progress (there seem to be quite some similarities between him and Steve Jobs).

Joe decides that Cardiff Electric should build an IBM compatible computer. Both because he realise the potential of a cheaper IBM clone, but also partly to get even with his father, who is a major boss at IBM. Needless to say, the two of them don't get along very well. He begins hammering the president of the company, Bosworth (Toby Huss), who finally gives in and accepts the idea. However, Joe needs someone who actually understands hardware by his side, and thus he hooks up with Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) who works at the company since before. Gordon is skilled but has problems with both alcohol and drugs, while trying to live a normal life with his wife and two kids.

Finally, Joe also brings in Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) into the mix. Cameron is a young woman with an anarchist mind, a brilliant coder but at the same time deeply disturbed in her own ways. Joe, Gordon and Cameron start pursuing their goal of succeeding with cloning the IBM PC, something that ends up being easier said than done. Not only their personal problems and infighting gets in the way, also the IBM suit makes life hard for our trio and indeed the whole of Cardiff Electric.

Gordon's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) also gets to play a big role in the show. She is not just your average stay at home mom, but a very capable technician and programmer as well. In the first season there is not much Commodore related material, the story revolves around the IBM PC and the clones, but that change radically when season two hits the screen. By then the adventures at Cardiff Electric have ended and our protagonists have parted ways - with quite some bad blood between them. However, Cameron and Donna decide to team up and start a game company entitled Mutiny together.

Mutiny is filled with your classic stereotypical gang of coders as well as Commodore 64's and 1541 disk drives. In a rented house that quickly turns into a mix between a copy party and a workplace, they try to focus on developing an early on-line gaming service which then grows into something resembling to Compuserve.

Running Mutiny doesn't turn out to be any easier than working at Cardiff Electric though, and Cameron's anarchistic mind frequently clashes with Donna's more serious approach. There is no lack of conflicts and a lot of mountains to climb. In the meantime, Donna's husband Gordon is once again lured into working with Joe MacMillan despite their very strained working relationship in season one.

As with all series that deal with computers and the surrounding culture, people like us will always find things to complain about. Technical terms that are used incorrectly, technical progress presented in the wrong time frame, computers on screen that run something unlikely considering the specification of the hardware or downright laughable explanations and demonstrations is commonplace in movies or TV-series.

Halt And Catch Fire aims to stay realistic and actually does a pretty good job at it. Of course, you and me can and will find things to complain and nitpick about that the average Joe would never spot, but there is no denying this show takes a serious approach to computer history and is based on realism. It is miles apart from movies such as War Games and Hackers or TV-series such as Automan which are also about computers in one way or another, but in a fully fictional way. As a fan of fiction, I still very much appreciate the more serious tone of this series, which undoubtedly also contains quite a bit of truth from the era.

The acting is generally of a high standard throughout the episodes. There are many memorable moments, but I must give an extra golden star to Toby Huss who portrait the boss John Bosworth at Cardiff Electric (and later turns up again in the second season too). His performance is second to none and he is in my opinion the best actor of the bunch. Hopefully he will get more screen time as the series progresses. As for the writing, I feel the first season has a bit of an edge towards the second season with more interesting twists and turns, but then again season two have lots of Commodore hardware on screen, so I guess it ends with a draw between seasons so far.

In October 2015, AMC renewed Halt And Catch Fire for a 10-episode third season, to premier in the summer of 2016. Be sure to pick up the two first seasons and watch them before the third season kicks into action!

TAPER/TRIAD

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