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'Halt and Catch Fire' review: Computer whizzes get with the program

Toby Huss as John Bosworth in AMC's "Halt

Toby Huss as John Bosworth in AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire." Credit: MCT

THE SHOW "Halt and Catch Fire"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's the early 1980s, and in Texas' "Silicon Prairie," a small company, Cardiff Electric, is about to make a big move -- a move it doesn't even know about yet. The company has hired former IBM exec Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) to boost sales, but Joe instead enlists company engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to reverse-engineer the newly released IBM PC -- then tells IBM what he has done. Before hell breaks loose, Clark has to convince his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), that he hasn't just demolished their future, and Joe must hire another engineer -- Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) -- who doesn't seem quite like an engineer.

MY SAY There are few things less sexy than the old "PC," such as an Altair or one of those clunkers from Tandy. They looked like square tortoises and moved just about as fast. "Halt" resolves this sexy-as-a-tortoise problem a couple of ways. First of all, there's sex -- even before the opening credits. Pace's MacMillan is a late-model Don Draper with fast lines, faster moves, and could sell water -- to use the old line -- to a drowning man.

Next, "Halt" strips away viewers' ingrained sense of tech superiority by blasting them straight back to a you-are-there moment (early '80s) when the IBM PC really was the king about to be devoured by a swarm of hungrier, nimbler and smarter wannabes.

This was, in fact, a thrilling millisecond in the history of American industry, and "Halt" brings you right to the precipice. Rules? What rules? This was about a future no one could possibly imagine and a "present" built on sand. Eager to get into the market, IBM's PC was itself a copycat, with one easily copied killer app -- its proprietary BIOS ("basic input output system"). Before long, everyone seemed to have an IBM "clone."

That's your backdrop to "Halt," but the foreground is a compelling human one. Is there a compelling TV series built on any of this? Beats me, but like Joe, the pilot does a heck of job selling the promise of one.

BOTTOM LINE Entertaining, engaging start.


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