Computers have dominated our lives for decades, but we still haven’t figured out a way to tell dramatic stories about the people who work with them. With the notable exception of The Social Network, television shows and films about the tech industry have produced a subpar mix of leaden dramas and not-quite-funny-enough comedies. Previous efforts like Jobs and Betas have taken their rightful place as pop culture afterthoughts, while recent attempts like HBO's Silicon Valley have underwhelmed following substantial promotional campaigns. To date, efforts at dramatizing the sausage making of the technology business have offered one clear lesson: the key to making these shows successful is communicating why the central technology matters. If the show can’t do that, we have no reason to care.
If the pilot is a representative sample of Halt and Catch Fire, it won’t be the series to end the AMC cold streak that's made Breaking Bad and Mad Men seem like a pair of brilliant accidents. The show's focus, that of a rebellious duo attempting to clone an IBM computer, has the makings of a perfect David vs. Goliath story; unfortunately, the pilot, which premiered last night, never bothers to give us a sense of what makes their mission special. By the episode's end, we understand why building the computer is important to the characters—there are more than enough scenes where they work late into the night sweating through their rolled-up sleeves and loose ties to prove that. But we're never convinced why we should care.
Despite the laborious effort, the pilot quickly devolves into classic prestige drama stereotypes. In lieu of meaning, there's Lee Pace doing his best Don Draper impression, complete with the obligatory introductory sex scene. There's also the nagging wife (Kerry Bishé) who delivers a fourth-act ultimatum to Pace’s reluctant partner-in-crime, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy). Clark is responsible for more clichéd lines than should be contractually allowed. He follows “Do you have a family Joe? That’s what I thought,” with, “Joe, I’m not like you—I’ve got a wife, kids, mortgage.”
Halt and Catch Fire's creative team seems to be aware of the problem. The writing wants so badly to deliver a perfect metaphor, to connect theme and plot with this cloned computer. The camera lingers endlessly on macro close-ups of circuits and wires, as though viewers will find meaning in the circuitry that the writers couldn’t. Maybe there's something in the act of cloning a computer that's closely tied to the show's thematic intentions, but whatever meaning is supposed to be there gets lost in the jargon. Though the script tries several times to deliver its Don Draper Polaroid Carousel moment, it never quite gets there.
Rather than establish a clear journey, the script throws out life preservers. There are a number of summaries and apologies offered in an attempt to salvage audience interest. “Are we still talking about systems software here?” one character asks on the audience’s behalf. Later, Pace acts as a human signpost and says, “Computers aren’t the 'thing'—they’re the thing that gets us to the 'thing,'” with a distant gaze that rivals Morpheus’s most philosophical Matrix moments. As the episode draws to a close, there's one last attempt at clarification that provides very little clarity: “So we get out of this by building a PC clone. This is your brilliant idea to get out of this?” Try as it might, the show can’t spoon-feed a connection that isn’t there.
This isn’t a problem limited to Halt and Catch Fire. Any show set in the world of technology is burdened by the weight of its own subject matter. No such TV show has yet to find a graceful way to carry the albatross of circuits around its neck. Silicon Valley and Betas took the opposite approach of Halt and reached equally unimpressive results. Rather than come at technology with crazy-eyed optimism, those half-hour sitcoms deliver cynical skepticism. They adhere to the thesis that beneath the layers, platitudes, and mountains of venture capital, Silicon Valley’s emperors are wearing no clothes. That approach doesn’t really work, either. Everyone already knows the world-changing potential of Google and Apple. Asking people to view their surrogates (Hooli, Pied Piper, BRB, etc.) as meaningless or ridiculous is the same as asking them to accept a world that doesn’t actually look much like their own.
The Social Network, however, was successful precisely because it avoided nuts-and-bolts conversations about technology. The algorithm that begot Facebook might as well have been a magical suitcase or enchanted sword. The Social Network isn’t about what Facebook is—it's about what Facebook did to the people around it. The film focuses on the hubris that comes with power and the Charles Foster Kane moment when you look around and realize that you’re alone with your ego.
In drama, the arrogance that accompanies power looks the same whether that power is derived from computers, newspapers, or the favor of the gods. Television shows don’t have that luxury of ignoring the details in favor of timeless themes. In a workplace comedy or a procedural drama, one mus understand how the workplaces function and why the thing that dominates the characters’ lives matters or doesn’t. From the first moments of their respective pilots, Mad Men and The Office make clear how you're supposed to view Sterling-Cooper and Dunder-Mifflin—but how can we understand Pied Piper or Cardiff Electric if the characters themselves don’t seem to?
One of Halt and Catch Fire's pilot's clumsiest moments is among the episode's most telling. As the heroes work to decode a computer's secrets, there's a montage that looks lifted straight from a procedural drama’s operating room. Joe and Gordon use instruments to dig into a computer, and it's tough not to be reminded of House or McDreamy performing an eleventh hour organ transplant. That sort of operation on a computer plays as absurd, an attempt to inject meaning into the situation by any means necessary. After all, what sense of urgency is there to complete an operation on circuitry?
It seems there's no televisual shorthand for telling technology stories, so showrunners retreat to easy genre tricks to create tension. That aforementioned montage is a clear reminder of the larger issue at hand. The technology world has inspired compelling real-life stories—Hollywood just hasn't cracked the code on how to consistently deliver them in a compelling way.
Brenden Gallagher is a freelance writer with strong opinions about television. He tweets here.