What Exactly Is Halt and Catch Fire?

Halt and Catch Fire (Photo: AMC)

Whatever else it may prove to be, Halt and Catch Fire is currently, surprisingly, renewed.

Leonard Maltin wrote of the 1993 Michael Douglas urban commando film Falling Down “It’s vivid, it’s credible, it’s extremely well acted…but what exactly is the point?” Such it mostly was with the ten episode first run of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, a collection of beautiful moments and sudden heart-warming or heart-wrenching performances about… oh who knows what it was about, really. Certainly the show’s creators didn’t seem to have much more than a concept, a great pitch and some marvelous twists but damned if it didn’t get a second season after the ‘affluent viewer’ demographic ate it up.1

Me amongst them. The diners I mean, not the affluent viewers.2 I’ll cop to a certain amount of stubbornness in sticking with a show like this with actors I like and catch-the-references hidden about like a period-specific Where’s Waldo. But I found it increasingly hard to defend Halt and Catch Fire as it plodded along, primarily due to one question looming over the whole thing – how is this show going to deal with the fact that these things already happened?

That may seem like an odd question to ask of any series set in a recognizable universe as that would sort of be the point of fiction, no? But Halt and Catch Fire actually sets itself in a deceptively small universe – computer companies in the mid 80s – with a discernable end product with which most viewers will be familiar. Is there a Cardiff Electric computer at your home or office? Right. But have you ever seen a computer manufactured by Apple? Or IBM? Texas Instruments, or even Digital?

We know how this plays out – which is fine, there’s still room for character exploration, in the way Mad Men was really a show about the manners and customs of a class of people in one period of time – but… we know how it plays out. What are the dramatic stakes in an episode about creating a more personal connection to a computer when by the end of episode 9 Halt and Catch Fire has planted itself firmly in our universe by showing us an Apple Macintosh? In a moment, poof, any suspended disbelief about the characters comes crashing down. What the hell is this made up company in a real period of history going to do? Create Skynet? Was all of season 1 just a jumping off point to actually establish an alternate history and soon Apple and IBM and Texas Instruments will be as forgotten or disposable to Halt and Catch Fire as actual titans of actual industry were to Watchmen?

Personally I could only hope – re-reading my jotted notes after watching episode 4 of Halt and Catch Fire suggests a viewer/reviewer in some sort of fugue state, wrapped up in these details and characters and moments with barely a Kaufmann-esque plot to carry things forward. The notes also suggests a desire for a return to a certain aesthetic, perhaps any additional aesthetic, in that having one of the characters just start murdering people would add a certain focus to the series.3

Even with homicide unlikely in season 2, I am hopeful about Halt and Catch Fire. When any character gets some real forward momentum, and especially when they crash into one another, my eyes are glued to the screen. The show does have an aesthetic, one I haven’t frequently seen on television: The parts look good, the pieces make sense, but it’s displayed in a stagey way, like a graphic novel put directly to screen.4 And the last two minutes of the season finale opened so many interesting questions, started so many interesting journeys that it’s hard not to be intrigued, assuming you lasted that long.5

This all keeps coming back to that question of definition – what sort of show is Halt and Catch Fire? How will it deal with the realities of reality? They’ve closed the door on making their own version of our world; they need to find and hew to a space that allows for the characters and problem solving and moments to move forward, not present and fade. Otherwise it’s a second-run Mad Men in 1980s Austin and that’s, again, a pitch, not a show.

The more I write about it, the more I find myself thinking of Halt and Catch Fire as a movie, or at least better as a movie. Here’s hoping someone figures out a script for the sequel that, if it doesn’t invent a genre, at least picks a genre and does it well.

  1. Actually, those numbers are kind of crazy, even if they are sliced thin.  
  2. Ladies…  
  3. This post was originally titled “Maybe things would pick up if Cameron killed people…”  
  4. The titles of ep 8 and 9 underscore that this whole thing was written and shot as if it was a series of moments, concepts, chapters. Self-contained pieces that contribute to some whole.  
  5. Not to beat the deceased equine mammal, but I still have no idea why they couldn’t have been asked and started at the end of episode 1 or 2. The creative team didn’t know they were getting a second season until well after the first season was in the can – so, again… what damn story do they think they’re telling?  

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About Aaron Mucciolo 206 Articles
He does things. That's all we can say at this time. E-mail: mooch@whatelseison.tv