At the dawn of the PC era, 3 unlikely "cowboys," Joe MacMillan, Gordon Clark and Cameron Howe, take personal and professional risks in the race to build a breakthrough computer. Tensions build within the group as they tread the line between visionary and fraud, genius and delusion, as their drive to do something that matters runs up against their ability to truly innovate. The series begins in the early 80s in Dallas, aka The Silicon Prairie, during the boom of the computer industry. IBM has released the first PC and is seemingly dominating the cutthroat field. MacMillan, Gordon and Cameron form an alliance at the smaller (fictional) tech company, Cardiff Giant, infiltrating it from within and using its people and resources to revolutionize the computer, shake up the competition and redeem their past personal failures. The show is not just about the ruthless rise of the computer business, or the obsessive striving for competitive advantage in the marketplace. Rather, it’s about people at war with themselves as they search for something bigger. During their search, they'll struggle with the dark side of the human ego, the destructive power of ambition, and the often thin line separating genius from delusion.
We're told at the opening of the first episode of 'Halt and Catch Fire' that the phrase refers to a computer command that will force the machine's instructions to all compete for superiority at the same time, resulting in loss of control for the user. Now, I still have no idea what that really means, but I think it's just an excuse to give this series a pretty nifty title. There's a lot of technobabble (as it was often referred to on Star Trek: The Next Generation) like this given out during the course of ten episodes, but fortunately you don't need to be a computer genius to enjoy this show.
Set in the early 1980s (the series begins in 1983, to be exact), 'Halt and Catch Fire' tells the story of three characters who team up to reverse-engineer an IBM computer in the attempt to make a version that is both faster and cheaper than what is already on the market. While sitting back and watching a series devoted to people trying to build a better mousetrap may sound like it would be incredibly dull to sit through, I was surprised at how engaging and interesting this show turned out to be.
The trio is brought together and led by Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), who is himself a former IBM employee with more than a few secrets hidden in his past – not the least of which involves him 'going off the grid' for a period between when he left IBM and joined up with his new company, Cardiff Electric (don't try and look it up, it's a fictional company created for the series, but loosely based on COMPAQ). Joe isn't necessarily the brains behind the operation, but he's the brain who knows how to find the brains – enlisting the aid of both current Cardiff employee Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and young college dropout Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to work on his vision of a faster/cheaper computer. It's Gordon's job to build the machine, while Cameron works on the operating code for it, both while Joe is breathing down their neck for results.
Of the three main characters, MacMillian is actually the one hardest to like, even though he's the series lead. He gives off a car salesman vibe that makes the viewer instantly wonder what his motivations really are. Is it possible there's nothing more to this guy than simple greed? The character of Cameron is more or less what one would expect – a young prodigy with a stylish way of dealing with both problems and people.
However, the most interesting character (and the best actor) in 'Halt and Catch Fire' is that of Gordon Clark. He's a guy who, along with his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), once worked on a computer project together – only to have it fail and almost ruin his marriage and family in the process. The appearance of Joe MacMillian presents Gordon with a second chance at success, but will his new project result in the same failures and damage to his marriage that his old project did?
Not having much beyond a layman's knowledge about computers – particularly 1980s computers – I have no idea if the technology and terminology in 'Halt and Catch Fire' is remarkably accurate or laughably bad (although the bonus materials assure us the research has been done). I do know that for a series I expected to be quite dry, there's a life and vitality to the show and its characters that made me anxious to watch each new episode to see what would happen next. I'm not sure how much longer the series can realistically continue before it gets repetitive or runs out of ideas, but for now, 'Halt and Catch Fire' is one of the more innovative concepts for a weekly series currently on TV.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Halt and Catch Fire' downloads onto Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase, which houses the three 50GB discs in the set, with the second disc being held on a plastic inserted hub. The case includes one insert, which contains a code for an Ultraviolet copy of the first season. The keepcase slides inside a cardboard slipcase, with slightly embossed lettering on the front cover. The artwork of the slipcase matches that of the keepcase.
The only front-loaded trailer is contained on disc one, and it's a promotional spot for the various dramatic series on AMC. The main menu consists of a montage of footage from the episodes, with menu selections running across the bottom of one's screen.
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A locked.
'Halt and Catch Fire' is shot digitally, using primarily Arri Alexa equipment. The look of the series leans to both the cool and the oversaturated, depending on the setting of each scene. Most of the outdoor shots have a bluish tint in quality and a somewhat pale look to them, but there are other indoor shots (particularly ones that take place in characters' homes) that are much warmer in tone. As a result, facial features also fluctuate depending on the setting. None of this is a problem with the transfer itself, but rather the colors and tone intended by the show creators and cinematographer.
Overall though, the image is fairly detailed, although black levels (particularly in scenes that have a warmer tone to them) aren't always the best. I could, however, detect no serious issues of banding or aliasing throughout, and only the slightest hint of video noise in various scenes (again, more obvious in some of the warmer shots).
The only audio option for each episode is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which is more than enough, given the fact that – for the most part – this is a dialogue-heavy series. In fact, the only real time viewers will notice their home theater systems springing to life is during the show's rather catchy (and very 1980s) opening credits, or during one of many 80's songs that are sprinkled throughout the episodes (there seems to be at least one or two in every entry). There are some occasional ambient sounds/noises as well, if only to remind the viewer that this is a 5.1 track, but in terms of actual immersiveness, this really isn't the type of show to provide such an aural experience.
In terms of any audio glitches, such as dropouts or other noticeable problems, there were none that I detected. In addition to the English track, subtitles are available in both English SDH and Spanish.
Note: All the bonus features listed below are contained on Disc 3 of this release.
You wouldn't think a series that is primarily focused on a group of people trying to build a better computer would have much playability value, let alone something you'd want to watch more than one time, but give the creators and cast of 'Halt and Catch Fire' credit for taking something that might look rather flat on paper and turning it into a very watchable, fairly entertaining show. Recommended.