Computer geeks rule this Sunday, as HBO's hilarious Silicon Valley wraps its first season on a triumphant high, while in the very same time period (10/9c), AMC launches the intriguing new drama Halt and Catch Fire, flashing back 30 years to the early days of the 1980s PC revolution. The best bet, as it has been throughout its eight-episode freshman run, is Silicon Valley, introducing an ensemble of such endearing quirkiness that even a decidedly low-tech soul such as myself hangs on every word as timid visionary Richard (Thomas Middleditch, a marvel of quaking anxiety) prepares to unleash the fruits of his "compression algorithm" through an upstart company named Pied Piper.
The finale, set at a high-stakes TechCrunch Disrupt conference that could make or break Richard's crew, is suspenseful and riotous, as unscrupulous rival mogul Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) plots to steal their thunder, while Richard's most neurotic helpmate Jared (Zach Woods, a gaunt hoot) desperately seeks a "pivot" strategy. With the prospect of failure (and a lost mega-millions payday) looming, Richard is going to have to stand up — in front of a skeptical public — or stand down. One of the virtues of this underdog comedy is how propulsive and addictive the storytelling has been. These dweebs aren't just hanging out, they're going somewhere. Or not. Thankfully, the season ends with a sense of resolution instead of a contrived cliffhanger. It's all very satisfying, even more so knowing that HBO has renewed it for a second year.
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The prospects are less certain for Halt and Catch Fire, which attempts to replicate a bit of Mad Men's period vibe with a bold new anti-hero in the terrifically charismatic Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) — who joins AMC's fabled rogue's gallery as Joe MacMillan, a ruthless salesman who leaves IBM in the early '80s for a small Texas company that he bamboozles into joining the PC race. Joe's fervent "Are you ready to be more?" pitch seduces Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy, excellent), an insecure family-man engineer with a computer chip on his shoulder, to sign on to Joe's reckless reverse-engineering scheme. He also enlists punk rebel Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) to join the crusade to disrupt what Cameron calls "an industry built on people ripping off each other's ideas."
It's a fairly cynical premise, though the pilot is slickly produced and very well acted. Is there enough here to carry a series, and is Joe's small band of tech wizards distinctive enough to break through the clutter the way those glamorous '60s ad men and women did seven summers ago? Hard to tell, since AMC didn't make episodes beyond Sunday's pilot available for review. First impression is that Halt is fresh and fraught with calculated promise, but whether that's enough to catch fire remains to be seen.
YO-HO-HUH? "If there's one thing I know, it's how to spread a legend," crows Edward Teach, aka the notorious 18th-century pilot Blackbeard, played with amusingly devilish but oddly understated hamminess by John Malkovich. (He's offbeat enough that you barely care that what little beard he sports has gone gray.) As the star of NBC's pirate folly Crossbones (Friday, 10/9), he makes this cartoonish romp a lot more fun than Starz's Black Sails — which admittedly isn't saying much — and you might want to stay tuned long enough to see Blackbeard's pate thoroughly perforated with acupuncture needles, as if he were trying out to be the next Pinhead in the Hellraiser franchise.
What passes for a story involves Richard Coyle, as rugged British spy Tom Lowe, infiltrating the exiled scoundrel's lush Caribbean-isle refuge in the guise of a ship's doctor. His mission is to assassinate the "Commodore," but soon enough, Lowe falls under the debauched leader's spell and is caught up in various tropical intrigues. As summer burn-offs go, it's at least more peculiar and memorable than the generic medical drama (The Night Shift) and rom-com (Undateable) NBC introduced earlier this week. Don't get too attached to any of them.