Halt and Catch Fire’s Turnabout

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From another dull antihero drama to a modern great, Halt and Catch Fire’s last two seasons have showcased a tremendous transformation

Halt and Catch Fire is a prime example of something that very rarely happens in television. It was given the time to change, against all odds. Its difficult debut season had its fair share of problems with little critical acclaim, no awards potential whatsoever, and utterly abysmal ratings. By all reasonable metrics, it was dead in the water. Had it been a network show, it probably would have been cancelled after only a handful of episodes aired and the rest might not have even seen the light of day, such is the disgustingly fickle nature of network TV. AMC are a cable station of course, so such an extreme measure was unlikely to ever happen and thankfully, it didn’t.

The first season aired as planned. And that was that, surely. After all, only a few years earlier, AMC cancelled Rubicon after a single season, an excellent conspiracy thriller headed up by James Badge Dale, that fell into very much a similar category but with significantly better ratings. (That show’s existence has, disgracefully, largely been erased, with no home media release or even a digital one.) Obviously the decision to renew is more complicated than just taking into account ratings, but the AMC had built up a reputation as not being a big proponent for supporting show’s that are much less than smash hits. So it came as a big surprise when they announced Halt and Catch Fire was going to be getting a second season.

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What a wise decision it turned out to be, although some things haven’t changed and likely never will. The ratings are still dire and there’s still not a single award nomination in the sight. The show itself however, has undergone a wonderful transformation as its creators figured out what really made it tick.

At the core of its big issues during the early days was an identity crisis. It was very clearly trying to be one thing but so obviously much better when it focused elsewhere. Instead of being a sweeping look at the rise of the personal computing industry in the eighties from a variety of different perspectives, it grounded itself heavily in one main character and made him the story. Joe McMillan, played greatly by Lee Pace to be sure, but the writing left a lot to be desired. It came off as very derivative of many of modern TV’s big successes. It opted quite transparently for the anti-hero mould, something which was once genuinely refreshing and different but which has since grown to be the norm in many cable dramas. This felt very much like a ‘me too’ scenario, an attempt to fit into the landscape as opposed to crafting a story that naturally supported it.  Joe is a middle-aged white guy with a mysterious, troubled past but a charming and charismatic flair. He came across as a more hamfistededly handled  Don Draper. And this was while Mad Men was still airing, making the comparisons all the more obvious and damning.  In the early episodes, it really did feel like a knockoff Mad Men except set in a different time period. That isn’t to say it was all bad. There were definitely hints of the potential and brilliance to come. The supporting cast, when given the time, really did shine. And the sheer style of it all was hard to resist. But none of this would matter unless it shifted ideology and tried to become a fundamentally different show.

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The radial shift occurred right off the bat in Season 2. This was no longer Joe’s story but rather Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gorden’s, in equal measure. In moving from a singular anti-hero approach to a period ensemble, Halt and Catch Fire bloomed in a way that most people probably wouldn’t have predicted. It sought to tackle the technology of the era through a variety of perspectives and lenses. For those particularly interested in the period, Season 2’s deep dive into the early days of chat rooms and online gaming was utterly enthralling. It’s possible this is the direction showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers were heading in all along or maybe they very deliberately took on board on the general consensus and reception to Season 1. Either way, they have to be commended for taking what was undeniably troubled baby and growing it into a fine, well adjusted adult.

And since then, the show has only grown more confident with its best yet season having recently wrapped up. The writing has matured significantly, opting for layered, slow form character building as opposed to the sudden reveals and awkwardly attempted shocking set-piece moments in the first season.  The show deserves particular praise for its handling of female characters, with Donna and Camera arguably taking center stage in the second and third season. Their struggles in navigating a male dominated industry during a less progressive era (but probably not that less progressive, unfortunately) has been handled with a remarkable tact not usually afforded in the medium and it’s made for very rich storytelling. Overall, it’s a remarkable transition, one that we’re rarely afforded the pleasure of witnessing in the medium. The behind the scenes team are of course only half of the reason it was able to brave the storm and emerge reborn. I doubt many viewers would have stuck around through the rough patches were it not for the consistently excellent cast. Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis (who stars in an episode of the upcoming season of Black Mirror, now a Netflix Original) Kerry Bishe, Scoot McNairy, and Toby Huss are all superb and easily comprise one of the best ensembles on television. Paul Haslinger’s synth score is similarly essential, perfectly complimenting the era the show expertly captures. (The original soundtrack finally saw a release in August.)

With its third season done and AMC having confirmed a fourth and final order of ten episodes due to air next year, Halt and Catch Fire hasn’t missed a beat since it began its uptick. The show has clearly found its groove and a comfortable identity and it could hardly make for more compulsive viewing. This is a loving ode to the eighties, an impeccably staged and acted performance, and a collection of dramatic television that is only one more great season away from rightfully earning its place in the annals of the all-time bests.

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