Halt and Catch Fire: “FUD”

(Episode 1.02)

TV Reviews Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire: “FUD”

One of the TV tropes I’m quickly growing tired of is the notion of the abrasive, smug know-it-all who acts like a righteous, cocky bastard to everyone around him, but we love him regardless because, dammit, he’s good at his job. It’s a characterization that has roots in gritty cop dramas like Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Streets and extends into the likes of NYPD Blue, House and, of course, Mad Men.

So what happens when said character does not even have the skills to back up their dickish demeanor?

For most of “FUD,” I assumed that Joe would be playing the Don Draper role—the exceptional salesman with an enigmatic past who may bully his associates constantly but ends up getting great work from them in the process. Ultimately, this is what ends up happening in the episode, but not before the character has been unceremoniously neutered in the process.

I focus on this plot point because, frankly, it’s one of the few things that stuck out to me about the episode. After all the character intros and world building of the pilot, “FUD” focuses primarily on the immediate aftermath of Joe’s daring ploy. For the most part, it’s kind of a slog. For the first half of the episode, the biggest dilemma comes with Cameron’s discomfort with the corporate restraints and Gordon being nervous about telling his wife that he’s working with a woman. There’s also a moment where Joe, infuriated with Cameron’s lack of progress in writing the computer’s BIOS code, slams her with the IBM code and tells her to tweak it “just enough” so they won’t incur any legal action.

When things do get interesting and IBM begins ruthlessly snatching up Cardiff’s clients out of spite, Joe goes from being the man-with-a-plan to looking like a charlatan selling snake oil. When the company’s clients begin dropping like flies, he can only hang his head in shame as a horrified Gordon suddenly realizes what kind of man he’s gotten into businesses with. To add to the chaos, Joe and Gordon walk into Cameron’s workroom and find her and the IBM BIOS codebook missing. They assume the worst, that Cameron has jumped ship and will tell IBM about their indiscretions.

It’s at this point that Joe throws not one but two different tantrums. The first comes when he realizes that Cameron and the book are missing. The second, more egregious one comes when he visits a stereo store in the midst of a going-out-of-business sale. Haunted by how the store’s failure reflects his own, Joe begins toying with all the stereos. When a befuddled employee tries to stop him, he shoves the poor man into the merchandise.

At one point, Gordon seems to even take on the audience’s perspective and straight-up calls out Joe on his lack of foresight. “You were just pretending,” he begins. “You’re like one of those guys who goes out and reads Catcher in the Rye too many times and then decides to shoot a beetle. Only in this case, I’m the beetle … you just recited your words with that big awful smile.”

Inevitably, Joe and Gordon come to blows in the company parking lot. In the process, Joe’s shirt is ripped off and—in addition to bearing witness to Lee Pace’s impressive abs—we see that his torso is littered with scars. It’s here that Joe recounts the story of being the lone nerd obsessed with Sputnik and science while everyone else was obsessed with football. Despite Pace giving it all he’s got, the speech is a demonstration of humanity that feels like too little too late. It’s a small, consumer grade Band-Aid on a character that feels like he needs full-blown surgery. Add to the fact that this personal story is quickly revealed to be little more than another ruse to inspire the troops and you’ve only exacerbated the problem.

Two episodes in and Halt and Catch Fire really has me doubting the potential I saw in the pilot episode. While the world and general premise remain intriguing, the character work has left much to be desired. With only ten episodes to make an impression, Halt and Catch Fire is off to an extremely shaky start. In a media landscape where standards are becoming raised year each year, this show is in quite the precarious position.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on “Twitter”: https://twitter.com/Mrozema.

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