In my early days on the beat, NBC had an ad campaign encouraging people to watch summer reruns, promising, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you!” In the age of Peak TV, that slogan seems less cynical than accurate. The rise of streaming services have put the bulk of TV history only a click or two away, which means that people are constantly discovering The Wire, or Arrested Development, or Terriers (sigh) for the very first time.
In lieu of a summer rewind this year, I wanted to offer up primers of shows you can stream, whether an older series available in full or something current you can catch up on before its next season begins. Last week, I did one of the former by extolling the virtues of the CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and while I intend to get to some vintage stuff soon, I wanted to hit another current series first, since it’s returning at the end of the summer, making this an ideal time to catch up.
So let’s talk a little about AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
What is it? A drama, created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, about the early days of the personal computer era, focusing on a quartet of interlocked personalities: erratic salesman/visionary Joe McMillan (Lee Pace), brilliant engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), Gordon’s talented but underappreciated wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), and antisocial young coder (and Joe’s sometime love interest) Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Or, if you want to put it more simply: What if Don Draper and Walter White teamed up in the early ’80s to build a computer empire, only to realize that their love interests are better at it than them? (Also, what if Roger Sterling was a charming and more focused Texan named John Bosworth, played by Toby Huss?)
Where can I find it? Both 10-episode seasons so far are streaming on Netflix, and available for purchase at the usual places; season 3 debuts on AMC Tuesday, August 23 at 10 p.m.
Where should I start? This question came up in the Crazy Ex comments, and is a not uncommon one. While I’m generally a completist – I even think you should watch the first season of Parks and Rec or the second season of Friday Night Lights – I know that everyone’s time is limited, especially in the age of Peak TV. And the first season of Halt is bumpy enough – particularly in its over-emphasis on Joe as a prototypical cable drama anti-hero and bringer of chaos – that I would suggest, if you don’t want to watch the whole thing just to get to the vastly improved second season, an abbreviated course of study: watch the pilot for the background on the main characters, then jump ahead to episode 7 (“Giant”) or 8 (“The 214s”) to see where things went, and also what happens once Donna gets more closely involved in Joe’s project.
What are its strengths? The four lead performances, for starters. (And Toby Huss is pretty splendid, too.) Whatever issues I have with Joe as a man-baby who often seems to exist only to complicate the plot, Pace is charismatic and strange and fascinating. McNairy’s aloof intensity makes him a perfect match for Bishé’s more open performance, and Davis has turned out to be incredible at portraying the vulnerable side of a character who tries so hard to walk around in emotional armor.
Beyond that, the shift in focus from the hardware side of personal computing to the early days of the Internet – through Cameron and Donna founding an online gaming company – gives the series a stronger tie to modern culture, while also featuring lots of fascinating glimpses into how small and simple that world used to be. (At one point, Donna finds the idea of online trolls delightful!) The second season also did remarkable things with the relationships between the different characters, and particularly the strain on the Clark marriage as Donna tries hard to get out of Gordon’s shadow and the expectations that she’ll always be there to play mother to her colleagues as well as her actual kids.
The series also does a great job of recreating the look and sound of the early-mid ’80s without fetishizing it; there was a period after the season 2 finale where I didn’t want to listen to anything but Talking Heads’ “Heaven” over and over.
What are its weaknesses? Again, it took the show a while to stop being Quality Drama Mad Libs, and to find a more interesting narrative focus than Joe and Gordon’s quest to build the world’s most cost-effective IBM clone. Watching the abbreviated version of season 1 outlined above will skip you over most of that, though, while adequately prepping you for the genius that follows.
I’m still not entirely sold. What else can you tell me? If the above doesn’t make Halt and Catch Fire sound like a show for you, it probably isn’t. But just as an extra nudge, here’s the show’s main title sequence, which is among the coolest on TV at the moment, and captures the cool, slightly alien feeling of watching it at its best: