[20 August 2014]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
I can’t sit around idle, stuck in a wave of silence that proves more polarizing than the loudest of shouts. Not when I keep reading the things that I read or internalizing the words that I hear. Not when everything seems so sudden, so reactionary, so unfair. I refuse to believe any of it. I refuse to fall back into the tiny chorus of detractors, cynics and, dare I say, snobs. So I’ll take a (seemingly lone) stand for Halt and Catch Fire.
The first season of AMC’s take on the early ‘80s tech industry drama, Halt and Catch Fire, came to an eerily final end on 3 August. Creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers seemingly packed every plot turn and subsequent resolution that came to their respective minds within those 40-plus minutes (which, for what it’s worth, was not unlike the ill-fated HBO horse-racing series Luck, which had to do the same thing a few years ago when its future remained uncertain).
Halt and Catch Fire‘s season was a wild, admittedly uneven ride through the lives of three main characters who were terribly flawed and only occasionally fascinating. According to Alan Sepinwall, one of them was little more than a 1983 version of Don Draper, while another was “a less homicidal” Walter White. (”Review: AMC’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ tries to be more than just another ‘Mad Men’ clone”, Hitfix, 28 July 2014) Why he decided to opt against deducing Mackenzie Davis’s Cameron Howe to yet another easy, lazy stereotype is beyond me.
Hey, if you’re going to write off a series’ main players, why not just go ahead and write them all off? Who cares if his Walter White/Gordon Clark correlation is so much of a stretch, it left marks on my computer’s monitor as I read it? What does it matter if Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan was far more of a Patrick Bateman knockoff than he was some type of ‘60s advertising executive who can’t seem to keep his pants on? Shoot. Why not just start pointing the virtual finger at how Cameron actually looked a little like the woman from the Apple commercial that Joe couldn’t stop watching during the season finalé?
“Both Joe and Gordon,” the A.V. Club’s Dennis Perkins wrote in his season finalé review, “helpfully explain that the woman in the ad (British athlete Anya Major) ‘looks like Cameron.’”
The jury’s out on if Perkins’ use of the word “helpfully” was supposed to be sarcastic in that stray observation, but take one look at any of the site’s recaps this season, and you’ll read how the almighty taste-makers over in that corner of Internet Land felt about the series all summer. Outside of the pilot, Halt and Catch Fire never had a chance. Not only did the A.V. people constantly give the season’s episodes C-level grades, but they also provided an absurd (read: unbearable) amount of nitpicking that left readers (read: me) wondering why they would even bother writing about it in the first place.
And now, with the final credits of the final episode of the series’ first season barely rolled all the way through, each of these professional critics, unionized recappers and resident people-in-the-know seemingly cannot wait to pronounce the show dead in the water.
“‘1984,’ the finalé for what’s looking like Halt and Catch Fire’s only season (if the ratings are any indication), decides what’s needed is a big finish,” Perkins wrote in the opening of his piece. (”“Halt and Catch Fire’: 1984”, AV Club, 4 August 2014)
“My guess is that this is moot,” Sepinwall opined after wondering aloud what might happen during a possible second season. “The ratings are too low (and the reviews too lukewarm) for AMC to bother continuing with it, especially since Cantwell and Rogers put a pretty neat bow on everything.” (“Season Finalé Review: ‘Halt and Catch Fire’”, Hitfix, 3 August 2014)
“One major problem with Halt and Catch Fire‘s first, and possibly last, season was what I’d call ‘Yeah… so?’ syndrome,” Time magazine’s James Poniewozik began in his essay discussing the series’ future. (“The Thing That Gets Us to the Thing: Why Halt and Catch Fire Mattered”, by James Poniewozik, Time, 4 August 2014)
“Whoa, there,” is what my own mind kept repeating as I read through these reviews and short-form think-pieces.
Can we all just take a minute to allow Pace time to enjoy his Guardians of the Galaxy success before we immediately conclude that his Joe MacMillan will never come out of those woods alive? Can we just have 15 seconds to analyze how Gordon Clark, the crazy, hard-lucked computer obsessive, looks without a beard? Maybe another half-minute to meditate on the white color that is slowly but surely easing its way out of Cameron’s short hair?
The first season of Halt And Catch Fire was not perfect, not by any stretch of any imagination. The low points were many. Pace’s MacMillan became somewhat predictable. Nobody quite knew what direction it wanted to go. There may have been two or three more absurdities than there should have been (what’s down with that hole in the backyard?). And at the end of the day, everything felt exactly like two people who have never previously written a television series got together and wrote a television series.
Contrary to what a lot of critics had to share before and after each of its ten episodes, there were a lot of things to value within the fabric of the Halt and Catch Fire universe during its debut season. We can begin with the acting. Pace, who’s appeared in troves of productions both small and large, was almost universally renowned for his acting work going into the beginning of this season. His Joe MacMillan, while eternally flawed as a character because of its similarities to other recent mysterious anti-hero lead roles on television, was an extension of pride, a piece of living, breathing proof that perception is king and the past is little more than a story we make up.
Sure, he might have been the weakest of the three main players, but for a little while, at least, he added a layer of manipulative fun to the equation that something like Mad Men never had. Not bad for a Juilliard graduate.
Scoot McNairy, meanwhile, ought to earn himself an Emmy nod next year after the way he embodied the aww-shucks craziness of Gordon Clark. So much of his performance was so visceral—you just felt his frustration leak through the television. Everything from his wife’s possible affair, to his flirtation with alcoholism, to his failure as a businessman, to the fact that he had his brand new sports car stolen, and even to that beard of his, you couldn’t help but root for him to succeed each time you knew he wouldn’t.
Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron Howe then added an element of youth with her punk-rock attitude and flashes of genius. It took a little while for her to even out Pace’s MacMillian—and even longer for me to buy into their romance—but as the picture became clearer, her character arguably transformed the most out of the trifecta that carried the season.
None of this is meant to overshadow the criminally overlooked and unfairly criticized performances from an endearing Toby Huss (as the boss who eventually comes around to help get things done) and Kerry Bishé (in the role of a lifetime as Clark’s wife). Both characters lit up the screen each time they appeared, the former providing commanding authority and the latter providing essential levity.
If nothing else, the series had a worthwhile cast that did far more than enough to bring the occasionally spotty narrative to life. Though speaking of that occasionally spotty narrative ...
I came to this show in its fourth week. Within a day’s time, I caught myself up on the season’s first four episodes and then downloaded each as they became available. When I initially picked it up, I decided that no matter what, I was going to stick with it. Why? Because it was clear that it would take the minds behind it a longer-than-usual amount of time to fully tell whatever story they were trying to tell. As the recent boon in slow-form TV has taught us, sometimes it takes a while for things to make sense. Sometimes, testing your viewers’ patience to the point where they question if your loyalty is worth their time is a necessary evil in order to maintain sustained relevance. Sometimes, the best tales are never fully realized unless they are delivered with a focus on The Long Game in mind.
Such is why Halt and Catch Fire shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed: it embodied and thrived in the Long Game practice. The most blatant example came in the form of the first season’s penultimate episode, “Up Helly Aa”. Without question the series’ most complete moment to date, it took every angle about which viewers may have been skeptical and justified each of them through a heavy dose of good, old-fashioned, time-tested drama.
An annoying, clichéd boss-employee home-wrecking affair turned into a mildly surprising reveal during the group’s Comdex trip. Joe’s choice between business or love felt genuinely conflicting, be it due to Pace’s excellent acting chops or a turn in narrative that had previously been well hidden. The Giant, the group’s sole reason for mortgaging their personal lives in the first place, wouldn’t boot up when they needed it to, creating an inherent dramatic effect over every physical movement.
Even something as small as a place to stay—early in the episode, our protagonists discovered their hotel room reservation was essentially null and void—provided an acute, essential amount of intrigue that added a nice touch to their disastrous, shoot-from-the-hip plan.
Yet none of this came until hour number nine. Nine out of ten, to be precise. When Donna kissed her boss, Hunt Whitmarsh, in episode seven, the exercise was a bit too annoying for comfort, easily dismissed as just another made-for-TV affair that felt as though it was shoehorned into the story. Though when we found out that Donna’s boss was actually using her to steal her husband’s idea for a new brand of computer, it gave that tiny foray into Cliché Land purpose, it gave the moment weight.
We as viewers were asked to trust that the writers wouldn’t lead us down roads already traveled far, far too many times from far too many other series (disclosure: I almost didn’t; that kiss between Donna and Hunt was so lackadaisical, it nearly drove me away for good). However, two episodes later, when Hunt revealed his true intentions, that trust was validated. It made the sluggish set-up worthwhile.
Which is indicative of why Halt and Catch Fire deserves a season two. Sure, the executives who choose shows for AMC might be wary of granting a couple rookies more access to the keys of a car they so dearly want to keep shiny and new, but what’s so wrong with taking a chance? Cantwell and Rogers clearly showed an ability to get better as the season progressed. With the exception of that rushed, weirdly packed finalé, the last half of the run was not only the superior half, but it was also overwhelmingly promising when it came to prospects.
How cool would it be to see Cameron and Donna, the two most brilliant characters of the bunch, compete against their respective lovers in the business world? Would Joe head back to Cardiff Electric to work with Gordon, or would he leave his “creation” (as he enjoyed pointing out through season one) for the prospect of having a hand in the advent of what will certainly be the future, the Internet?
Now that Gordon has found professional success—and Joe has found a way to un-suppress that highly suppressed ego of his, how would he react to achieving his goals? Would he merely settle in as a boss and kick back, enjoying his millions of dollars The Giant brought him? Or would he ultimately long to be on the cutting edge, driving yet another wedge between him and his family?
These are all questions that could not only carry a second season, but they could help create a more solid foundation on which the series could stand, ensuring a longer, fruitful future. Halt and Catch Fire had a lot of momentum after its fantastic pilot debuted at South by Southwest in March, but since then, the series saw its viewership decline steadily. Fledgling ratings don’t always have to mean a death sentence for valuable franchises, however, (cough, The Wire, cough), and network television could do a lot worse than allowing these characters to have a second go at telling their stories.
Plus, there’s this, from Rob LeFebvre at Cult of Mac, who earlier this month outlined reasons why the series should not be canceled:
“Smart girls: Donna Clark is an engineer of incredible talent, and she saves the project at Cardiff Electric when MacMillan hides the backups and blames Cameron. She uses her super smart brain while still managing to be indispensable at her day job at Texas Instruments (and NOT as a secretary) and raising her two daughters. Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) is the hot young keyboard jockey who creates an entirely new operating system for the fictional portable computer, hacks into a national bank to move funds to Cardiff Electric at her boss’ request, and generally talks circles around the best software boys in the cubicle farm.” (“Why Halt & Catch Fire is must-see geek TV (and why we can’t let it die)”, 9 August 2014)
Indeed, the most prevalent reason why Halt and Catch Fire deserves a spot on the programming schedule next year is its ability to make the women of the show its alpha-characters. There might not be a better dynamic duo of smart leading females on TV today than Donna and Cameron. While the former is a stone-cold genius, the latter is far and away the most ambitious presence the series has (and that includes the shady Joe MacMillan, who can’t seem to stay in one place for longer than a minute and a half). It’s refreshing to see a series not only invest in a strong female presence, but highlight exactly how messed up the male mind can get. Television executives should take note.
“Halt ended up being a revealing, if imperfect, story about creation, ambition and the costs of pursuing dreams,” Poniewozik wrote later in his piece for Time. “With what it’s set up, I’d like to see a second (season), but I can understand if that doesn’t happen. I do hope, though, that we’ll see more dramas about creation rather than destruction, about the magic and pain involved in trying to build and dream and resist the easy out of cynicism. This attempt may have been a noble failure, like the Apple Newton, an early attempt at something that will later reinvent its field. Maybe Halt and Catch Fire, in the end, wasn’t the thing. But it can be the thing that gets us to the thing.”
With that final sentence, the writer, of course, is referencing the series’ most memorable quote, which came from Pace’s MacMillan early on: “Computers are not the thing; they are the thing that gets us to the thing.” All of TV’s best ideas have come from some form of that very idiom. Some hold Hill Street Blues responsible for the recent “Golden Age” of television, that series being the first time overt cynicism and obvious complexity was allowed in the living room. For a more recent history lesson, other writers will often turn to The Wire or The Sopranos or a gaggle of other slow-moving, boundary-pushing, fresh-looking series that has since allowed hits like Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Dexter to exist.
Yet as Poniewozik smartly pointed out in his article, what makes Halt and Catch Fire not only intriguing, but relevant, is its decision to profile precisely how messy building something can be. The type of people at the forefront of this series quite literally had an entire popular culture at their fingertips when they sat down in 1983 to come up with a way to make computers accessible in the mainstream. They didn’t know it then (or, well, Cameron probably did), but they would ultimately be creating the single most influential device the human race has seen since, oh, I don’t know. Fire. Or the wheel. Computers are now so ingrained in today’s societies that we are only a generation or two away from everybody viewing the ‘80s the same way Millennials currently view Woodstock.
How did that happen? Like, they really only had one stage?
They did. And, as far as technology goes, there was actually a time when accessing the Internet meant unplugging your phone, connecting a jack, and dialing up some type of provider as you waited to see AOL’s home page pop up, seven minutes after you initially sat down. There were wires. And a dial tone. And a whole megabyte worth of frustration that you would feel each time you tried to check your Hotmail account.
If nothing else, Halt and Catch Fire has reminded us that the technological luxuries of today didn’t come without tears or hurt or heartbreak or frustration or pain or sacrifice. In fact, they came after a lot of people failed, a lot. Nobody went to bed on a Thursday and woke up Friday morning with a recipe for Wifi. Nobody picked up a telephone in May and figured out how to access email on it by June.
And despite how either AMC or The A.V. Club or critics or (dare I again say) snobs might feel, nobody proves they can create perfect television within the parameters of a measly ten episodes. As it stands now, Halt and Catch Fire has as much or more potential than any other new series around to be the type of engaging, slow-burning, fresh and invigorating television program that some of us see it can be. The groundwork for something special is there, imperfections and all. It’s only a matter of if it will be given an adequate opportunity to blossom into its very clear and very real capabilities.
Or, in other words, it’s not unlike Texas’ Silicon Prairie in the early ‘80s. The pieces, the motivations and the ideas are all there. All the engineers need is enough time to make sure that each and every chip—tiny or large, necessary or expendable, modern or aged—is assembled correctly.Splash image: Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire