The short answer is, sometimes being a great series just isn’t enough. Both an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the first great boom in American personal computing and a sweeping drama about all the ways people struggle to live their lives under capitalism’s uncaring gaze, Halt and Catch Fire is the last great character-driven series of America’s golden age of prestige drama.
It began in the footsteps of series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos then moved past the “difficult man” genre to focus on its female characters. Critically acclaimed, a regular fixture in years-end “best of” lists and with the final season scoring a 100% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s the kind of series you’d expect people to still be raving about. And yet unless you happened to be looking in just the right place, it sank almost entirely without trace.
Part of the problem was that it was the right show at the wrong time. Specifically chosen by US cable network AMC to replace Mad Men, the original set-up pointed viewers towards yet another attempt to cash in on nostalgia, corporate intrigue and troubled men. Starting out in the early 1980s in Texas’s so-called “Silicon Prairie” development hub, Halt and Catch Fire (the title is a term for when a computer’s programs compete with each other and the whole thing has to be shut down), began with entrepreneur Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) coming up with a scheme to build a cheaper clone of IBM’s PC and roping in computer engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and programming genius Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), to make it happen, while Gordon’s equally talented wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) watches on.
Over the next four seasons, the quartet would strive for success time and time again. Seasons 2 and 3 jumped forward a few years and shifted the spotlight to Cameron and Donna’s company Mutiny, which looked beyond stand-alone PCs to video games and the then-looming world of online chatrooms. The focus then moved to California and Mutiny’s growing role in the world of online finance; season 4 sees the quartet getting involved in the beginnings of the World Wide Web.
The rhythms of a workplace television drama are familiar ones. Our heroes strive to get somewhere, only to discover that when they arrive, they’re right back where they started from. In the first season this formula seemed like a weakness; as Halt and Catch Fire progressed, it rapidly became a strength. For every Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the computer industry has hundreds, if not thousands of people whose brilliant idea was just a little too late, or ripped off by a competitor with slightly more resources, or simply muscled out of the way by one of the big guns who already dominated the market and didn’t see any need to give the little guy a break. It became a show about underdogs, always striving for more.
It’s one of the series’ intentional ironies that as the world of computers became increasingly interconnected – the series winds up just before the real-world release of the Netscape internet browser – the four main characters find their history often driving them apart. Tech experts are often focused to the exclusion of healthy relationships; businesspeople constantly find themselves forced to make hard decisions to keep their dream – or a dwindling version of it – alive. Sacrifice and compromise became the characters’ constant companions. It’s knowing when to fall back and when to stand fast that’s the real skill.
So while early critics saw a male-focused retro business drama that was more of the same, Halt and Catch Fire was – much like its characters – laying the groundwork for something new. They changed and grew as their circumstances changed; season 2’s focus on the female leads broke the traditional pattern of damaged men even as it allowed the already brittle Joe to crumble even further. Moving closer to today didn’t hurt either (though losing the early 80s fashions was a shame). While the origin of the PC is historically important, for most of us today a computer is simply a way we connect to other people, making the focus on software in later seasons feel a lot more relevant.
For the show itself, this constant improvement was its own reward. Each season of Halt and Catch Fire grabbed more accolades even as the exploding range of drama on US television meant it was increasingly hard even for fresh shows to grab attention. It’s a show about people who keep putting in the hard work even as the rewards stay out of reach; it’s something the cast and creators know a little about.
Every episode of Halt and Catch Fire is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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