How AMC Can Save Halt And Catch Fire By Embracing Its Inner Half-Life
Two words: Gordon Freeman. One more word: crowbar.
Let's say you are one of the half-dozen or so people still watching AMC's turgid nerd drama Halt And Catch Fire. Who could blame you for your loyalty and good intentions? When it was first announced, the show sounded like catnip-on-silicon for geeks of a certain age who grew up playing text-based adventure games and storing floppy disks in ugly beige plastic organizers next to their gigantic 'puters. That the show was set not in Silicon Valley but in the Silicon Prairie of Texas (birthplace, in the '80s and '90s, to Compaq, Dell, and Id Software, among others) made it seem like it was going to be interesting, at least.
But six episodes in, those few of us who've stuck around have been wondering what the goddamned point is. The show, about a group of techies and businesspeople trying to build an portable IBM clone computer, is filled with unlikeable lead characters, unnecessarily moody lighting, lame Texas stereotypes (like using the phrase "All hat and no cattle" just to use it) and so much nothing happening that you begin to wonder if you missed an episode where all the plot-moving-forward happened. If you aren't watching, here's a taste: an entire episode was spent dealing with a catastrophic drive crash in which it turned out there was no backup. Then the problem got fixed, but it was revealed later that there was no disk crash in the first place. Most of us who work in offices don't call that Emmy-worthy Sunday-night drama. We call it Wednesday.
The brooding downer vibe of Halt at this point doesn't seem like something that's going to (pardon, please) catch fire unless things improve or change dramatically. Basically it's Low Winter Sun Microsystems despite endless promotion during the last run of Mad Men episodes and a strong (we thought!) premise and setting. It probably won't be returning for a second season unless there's a tremendous critical groundswell toward the end of the season and a rise in viewership.
And, AMC, have I got a plan to make both of those things happen. Think more Walking Dead and a hell of a lot less Mad Men (which, despite its accolades, is in end-of-life ratings repose).
Follow these instructions carefully, AMC: find the largest, most spacious dump truck available in the Washington-state area. Deposit into said truck several million dollars (50 would be nice) and a juicy contract. Have that truck sent to the Bellevue offices of Valve Corp. and ask to speak to a guy named Gabe Newell. You're going to buy the TV rights to the legendary video game series Half-Life.
If you're unfamiliar: Half-Life, its brilliant sequel, and various side games around it, are action games the way the first Bourne movie was a spy flick. They were smart, engaging, action-packed, and elevated the medium in which they existed. (None of these describes the current state of Halt, by the way.)
What does Halt And Catch Fire have to do with Half-Life? In Halt, Gordon Clark is a tech nerd who finds himself trapped in a situation where he must use his brains to design a computer to get his company out of trouble and his life out of a depressing existential funk. In Half-Life, Gordon Freeman is a tech nerd who finds himself trapped in a military lab and must use his brains (and a crowbar) to keep his world and his life from ceasing to exist. Freeman, like Clark, has a beard and wears glasses and is surrounded by obstacles -- be they people or nasty bugs -- that are always trying to bring him down.
What I am proposing is this: make the current season of Halt And Catch Fire a prequel to an ongoing action series set in the Half-Life universe, with Gordon Clark as the hero. You wouldn't even have to change his first name! Just call him Gordon, hand him a crowbar in S02E01, and we're off to the races!
How would this work, exactly? Here's the retconning necessary to make it happen. Gordon and his team of hardware engineers and programmers at Cardiff Electric succeed in creating a consumer laptop that's so wildly popular that the company earns a huge government contract to design bleeding-edge server hardware and workstations. Gordon and the company's CEO John Bosworth are asked to visit a top-secret base in New Mexico called Black Mesa. Cardiff's other top dogs, Joe MacMillan and Cameron Howe, are not invited due to security clearance problems (mostly because of Joe's time at IBM), but that doesn't matter, because after one last unnecessary round of in-office sex, Joe and Cameron both disappear.
At Black Mesa, after a very detailed and spectacular tram ride, Bosworth goes off to talk deal points with the brass while Gordon is given a tour of one of Black Mesa's particle-physics labs, where new Cardiff servers and workstations are needed. It's there that a horrible explosion happens, and Gordon is knocked out. While unconscious, he has visions of horrific aliens. When he wakes up, the lab has been gutted. Guards and scientists have been killed, and the entire Black Mesa facility is on lockdown, with military black-ops troops sent in to wipe out anything or anyone left alive.
The rest of the second season of let's just call it Halt And Half-Life is about Gordon trying to survive a hostile environment full of disgusting head crabs, zombies, and gross aliens falling from the ceiling, as well as friendly fire. As the season progresses, Gordon meets security guards and scientists who try to help along the way but are invariably killed, infected, or worse. Gordon opens up a communication channel with Bosworth, who miraculously survived the blast, and who tries to guide him through parts of Black Mesa via Walkie-Talkie. (Toby Huss is too great on Halt not to use here.)
Gordon goes from wimpy whiner to survivalist bad-ass, learning to navigate drain pipes, jump over chasms, and use an ever-more-elaborate arsenal of weapons in addition to his trusty crowbar. He also uncovers the government experiments that opened up the Earth to great risks from other dimensions. In the moments when he's not being attacked, he also misses his wife and kids, who appear in flashbacks and dream sequences, reminding him that he was not a great dad. Will saving the world redeem Gordon? His wife, Donna, keeps helping him figure out puzzles and work out solutions to sticky situations when she appears to Gordon. But is she just a voice in his head...or something more?
The season ends on a huge cliffhanger: Gordon has seemingly defeated the threat from another dimension and is accosted by G-Man. G-Man, the man pulling all the strings at Black Mesa, turns out to be Joe's father, Joe MacMillan Sr.! He tells Gordon that Joe is in the fold and soon Cameron will be too. "The band's getting back together," he says mysteriously, before injecting Gordon with a serum and putting him into stasis as Gordon starts screaming.
Next season, when Gordon wakes up, it's twenty years in the future. Earth has been taken over by a species from another dimension called the Combine. Donna and Cameron are now helping lead an underground revolution out of City 17 as Joe Jr. and Joe Sr. have become agents of appeasement. Can Cameron, now rocking out to '90s grunge music, convince Joe Jr. to join the freedom fighters and get out from under his father's thumb? Will Gordon ever reunite with Donna and his kids? And who's this woman Alyx Vance who helps guide him through City 17 in hopes he'll help defeat the Combine? (Spoiler: it's one of Gordon's daughters, all grown up and fighting under an assumed name!) And, as this next season draws to a close, with the freedom fighters earning their first victory against the Combine with the help of Gordon, we close on a bad-ass moment that will have Half-Life fans jumping on their sofas: Gordon picks up a Gravity Gun for the first time. He tests it out tentatively, using it to lift up a gigantic crate. As it hovers in the air above him, Gordon's eyes light up with a glee we haven't seen in him before and a smile spreads across his lips. "I'm gonna have fun with this," he says. Credits! End of Season 3! Of potentially nine or ten seasons!
Come on, AMC, this series would be so much more interesting than what you've got going now. Get that dump truck. Give Gabe a call. Align your Gordons and enter the Half-Life universe.
I leave you with this last bonus: you could eventually do a crossover with Portal! Which, let's face it, could be a whole other series unto itself about what happens when humans get too enamored of artificial intelligence. Someday Gordon will meet GLaDOS, and it will be must-see AMC.