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Thursday, April 23, 2015


You don't have to be a computer whiz to appreciate "Halt and Catch Fire", the AMC series about an upstart electronics company in Dallas, Texas taking on monolithic IBM in a race to come up with the first portable personal computer. In fact, even the most borderline "tech savvy" viewer such as myself can find plenty here to be entertained by even as the geek-speak flies right over our heads.

Set in the early 80s (with RETURN OF THE JEDI still in its first theatrical run) Anchor Bay's HALT AND CATCH FIRE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON captures the furiously competitive world of the burgeoning PC industry with ample amounts of drama and suspense. In this fictionalized account of real-life events, Cardiff Electronics boss John Bosworth (Toby Huss, JERRY MAGUIRE, COWBOYS & ALIENS) makes a fateful decision when he hires the brash and manically driven Joe McMillan (Lee Pace, THE RESIDENT, THE HOBBIT), an ex-IBM exec, as his head of product development.

Joe causes chaos by weeding out the less imaginative employees and channeling ever-increasing resources into building a faster, cheaper PC, one which weighs less than fifteen pounds and can be carried in a briefcase. Much of the show's watchability comes from seeing him plunge recklessly forward through any personal, professional, or financial crisis as though his life depended on it, with an almost sociopathic singlemindedness. Hints of his past, including an unfortunate childhood trauma and his ousting from IBM (John Getz of THE FLY will guest-star as his IBM exec father), make him even more of an ongoing mystery.

For his core team, Joe drafts hardware genius Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE), an office drone still haunted by the inexplicable failure of his own brilliant innovations in the field (Joe recognizes his potential and reignites it by tasking him to reverse-engineer the IBM computer chip), and software savant Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis, BAD TURN WORSE), a punky, videogame-addicted college student who seems to have cut her teeth on writing computer code.

The big drama isn't just in whether or not they can come up with the technological breakthroughs they're striving for--they're also trying to do all of that without causing Cardiff electronics to go out of business, mainly due to legal actions brought against it by their monolithic competitor IBM. After reverse-engineering that IBM chip, the team must then come up with their own non-copyrighted version that will pass legal muster and do so before the company goes under.

Between Gordon's marital problems with wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), another tech head working for Texas Instruments, and the unhealthy sexual relationship between Joe and Cameron, the show features plenty of non-computer-related mischief that also manages somehow to be relevant in various ways to the ongoing professional intrigue. The characters are far from perfect and often display less-than-admirable traits, which makes them more believable and identifiable.

The 80s-era period atmosphere is good, although the Georgia locations don't convey much of a "Texas" vibe and neither do some of the less-than-authentic accents. (Guest stars Jean Smart and Texas-born Annette O'Toole are exceptions.) When the resident eggheads start spouting volumes of computer lingo at each other, it reminds me of the techno-gibberish used on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"--I don't really have to know exactly what it all means to appreciate its dramatic impact.

The entire season builds up to the big electronics sales convention in Las Vegas where the team goes to unveil their big gamble to their peers along with the rest of the world. Here, just when we think all is finally well and that a major victory is at hand, a shockingly unexpected and near catastrophic setback gets them scrambling into damage control mode again.

The 3-disc Blu-ray set from Anchor Bay (10 episodes, approx. 435 minutes) is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound and subtitles in English and Spanish. Extras consist of three featurettes--"Remaking the 80s", "Rise of the Digital Cowboys", and "Setting the Fire: Research and Technology"--along with a brief behind-the-scenes look at all ten episodes. Also contained are instructions on how to instantly stream and download a digital HD ultraviolet copy of the series.

HALT AND CATCH FIRE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON succeeds in taking something totally foreign to me and making it interesting. It's fun seeing all the dramatic stuff that went into the creation of this amazing invention that most of us take for granted every day.

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