Halt and Catch Fire (why you should watch it, or maybe you shouldn’t)


Just today, I finished watching Season 3 of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. I don’t think I’m the only one watching it, but I am apparently one of a select few. You already know whether or not you’ve been watching it. If not, you’re not one of the few.

That last sentence made me sound like an elitist prick. You have to take my word for it that I’m not. I like the show a lot, but I will begrudgingly admit that it’s not—well—great. It has great moments, certainly, but, taken as a whole, it will not be one of those television series that go down in history as a “classic.”

In fact, I had most of this season stored on my DVR before I began binge-watching it last week. That’s the opposite of “Must-See” TV, I would imagine. I didn’t bother watching it until all the comic book-related shows I like to watch went on winter hiatus. I won’t pretend that these comic book shows are all great either, though apparently I place a higher priority on watching them than I have Halt and Catch Fire. That says more about me than it does about this series, and it certainly offers a serious rebuttal to any accusations of elitism.

I do like this show. At least, I’ve grown to like and even love the characters on the show. And, if this were a review of the series, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to you. With certain caveats.

Before getting into the caveats, I should tell you why the show appealed to me in the first place.

First, it is on AMC, a network which has earned my respect over the years, the home of The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad , Mad Men, and, as if I needed to say more, Comic Book Men. Whoever is in charge over there at AMC obviously has their fingers on the pulse of the American television consumer who is me (or should it be “I”? I digress, and me don’t know). If AMC decides to try out a new show, I’m inclined to watch at least a couple episodes of it.

Second, the subject matter—the development of the personal computer in the ’80s—was right in my wheelhouse. I was there in the early eighties. No, I wasn’t doing any important work on the development of PCs, but I was in college learning how to program on mainframes and I was there when the earliest shockingly-expensive PCs were coming to market. I even sold IBM clones at Radio Shack. I had an inkling that I was living through historic events and was witnessing a true technological revolution. I could not predict what would become the Internet. You have to keep in mind that even Popular Science magazine at the time was predicting a day when you could go into a music store and download your own CD on-site. They weren’t even imagining big enough. And I was selling car telephones, the first cell phones, that were roughly the size of waffle irons.

Third, and last in this case, I liked the characters when I was introduced to them on the show. Joe Macmillan (played by Lee Pace of Pushing Daisies) is the Steve Jobsian character, a former IBM executive with more than a little of the showman and conman in his character makeup. He’s the type of character you can both love and hate at the same time. Joe recruits Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) a punk girl hacker with a sort of Angelina Jolie vibe, and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) a computer engineer who is sort of the Wozniak to Macmillan’s Jobs, to help him build a new, even-better-than-IBM personal computer. The characters seemed well-drawn and complicated enough to hold my interest. Other characters were quickly put into the mix, such as Gordon’s wife, Donna, who becomes an increasingly important character in her own right, and John Boswell (Toby Huss) a Cardiff Electric executive who becomes a father figure to Cameron.

The actual plot of the series matters less than the characters themselves. In fact, the character goals continually change from season to season, sometimes jarringly. At its heart, Halt and Catch Fire is about how each of the characters affects the others, regardless of setting or circumstances.

I would be hard-pressed to tell you what’s happened so far, even though there have been only thirty episodes. There have been repeated failures, with some successes. The setting has moved from the Silicon Prairie in Texas to the Silicon Valley in California. What started out being about PCs turned into something about commercial websites and is now apparently about the birth of the Internet. Time has passed, lots of it, and we’re entering the ’90s now. Along the way, and I mention this only because it flows through the series as an undercurrent without ever really coming to the forefront of the story, we discover that Joe is what can only be called sexually fluid. Even the AIDS epidemic becomes little more than backstory here in the capable hands of the show’s writers.

Does any of this appeal to you? That’s the main caveat I was mentioning earlier. If none of this subject matter appeals to you, then this is not the show for you. But, if you’re a fan of good drama and complex characterization, you will find something to enjoy in this series.

I mention it now only because I found out that the series was picked up for a fourth and final season back in October of this year. I saw that the actor Scoot McNairy was going to be on the next season of Fargo (also good television, if you didn’t know that already) so I was concerned that Halt may have been canceled. No, not canceled, but it will be concluded next season, after the final ten episodes. There’s something satisfying in knowing that a series will get a chance to end of its own volition, in knowing that the myriad plot threads can be tied up and we will get some sort of conclusion. I’m a completist at heart.

In conclusion, maybe it’s not great television, but it’s certainly good television. And I will watch the final season. I can’t give it a higher recommendation than that.

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