'Halt and Catch Fire,' 'Crossbones' premiere

Posted: May 30, 2014

* HALT AND CATCH FIRE. 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC.

* CROSSBONES. 10 tonight, NBC10.

CAN FANS of "Mad Men," who only a few weeks ago saw a man driven mad by a '60s behemoth of a computer, find happiness in the 1980s with a band of revolutionaries trying to clone the IBM PC?

AMC hopes so.

The speeding sports car that hits an armadillo in the opening moments of Sunday's premiere suggests that the writers of "Halt and Catch Fire" may also like to signal their intentions metaphorically - at least it's not a big blue armadillo - and Lee Pace, as Joe MacMillan, a former IBM sales exec determined to exploit a weakness in his old company's new weapon, exudes a Don Draper-like confidence that may or may not mask something more disturbing and/or interesting.

AMC, which doesn't like critics to see too far into its shows' futures, made only one episode of "Halt" available and that's not enough to tell if it's going to catch fire or burn out in a few episodes.

But like AMC, I'm hopeful, maybe because I remember the '80s (when I was first online with an Epson QX-10 running CP/M).

And because Pace, so endearing in "Pushing Daisies," is using his powers here for what's not so clearly good or evil.

Women often get short shrift in tech-driven tales, and the fictional "Halt" does assign its female stars some conventional tasks. Mackenzie Davis ("Smashed"), who plays computer prodigy Cameron Howe, trades more than barbs with Pace's character, and Kerry Bishe ("Argo") has to be the voice of not-so-sweet reason as Donna, the wife of Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, "12 Years a Slave"), the engineer whom MacMillan recruits to reverse-engineer a PC.

But Cameron will prove crucial to MacMillan's scheme, and Donna, whom we first meet walking her young daughter through the guts of her See 'n Say, knows her way around a motherboard.

You don't need to speak geek to watch "Halt and Catch Fire," any more than you need to know corporate law to love "Suits."

As MacMillan, quoting Gordon to Gordon, says: "Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing."

'Crossbones' sets sail

Costume dramas with first-rate actors don't come along every day on broadcast television, so I'm inclined to grade NBC's "Crossbones" on a curve.

If only for the pleasure of John Malkovich's company.

"Crossbones," from "Luther" creator Neil Cross, reimagines (and extends) the life of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach so that Malkovich can play the pirate in 1729 - with a white goatee.

The pirate's life is not for me, but from some of the responses to Starz's "Black Sails," I know that many viewers equate piracy with sea battles, not onshore conspiracies.

Sea battles turn out to be expensive. Talk is cheaper.

Malkovich's Blackbeard - he prefers "Commodore," by the way - gets to wax lyrical, declaring that "the devil is an Englishman" as he explains his world view to Thomas Lowe (Richard Coyle), a ship's surgeon who's not exactly who he claims to be.

Asked by Lowe if he's not himself an Englishman, the Commodore replies that he's "a fellow with no wish to be governed, inspected, indoctrinated, preached at, taxed, stamped, measured, judged, condemned, hanged or shorn. I'm not the devil, Mr. Lowe. I've cast out the devil, that depraved distinction between rich and poor, great and small, master and valet, governor and governed."

Speeches like that - and the occasional appearance of Julian Sands - were more fun for me than the brutality and torture they punctuate (but then I'm the wimp who had to give up "Hannibal").

You might not want to sign on for a summerlong journey right away, but Malkovich's theatrical pirate probably deserves an hour or two hosting this after-dinner cruise before you decide if NBC's gone completely overboard.


Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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