Halt And Catch Fire, The Get Down, and The Power of Innovation on Television

Surveying the current prestige drama landscape, it can appear that for a drama to be good these days it has to be dark, destructive, and nihilistic. The Underwoods traffic in betraying fellow politicians, Jimmy McGill inches every so assuredly into his morally bankrupt Saul Goodman persona, and everyone’s just having a grand ol’ time on Game of Thrones. But what if I said it doesn’t have to be like this? That drama can come from creation, from moving towards the light, towards optimism? There are brilliant shows on right now that are on (and sometimes above) the writing and acting levels of the aforementioned shows and aren’t talked about nearly enough.

Halt And Catch Fire has taken an unprecedented route towards joining the ranks of Good Television. It’s first season was viewed as a desperate attempt from AMC to replicate the success of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. The show, essentially Mad Men with computers in its first season, often felt like a Mad Men parody more than anything, and somewhat became a critical punching bag. But then something interesting happened: it drastically changed course. The ending of season one found the main characters, Joe MacMillan (the resident Don Draper knock-off) and Gordon Clark (the resident Walter White one who knocks-off) having failed in their quest to revolutionize the personal computer as they witness Apple beat them to the punch with the Macintosh. What happened the next season was a complete creative overhaul, pushing Joe and Gordon to the sidelines and focusing on Gordon’s wife Donna and Joe’s protégé/love interest Cameron as they take over and start a computer gaming company. And it worked.

The second season follows the trials and tribulation of Donna and Cameron as they attempt to keep their company afloat, which, while not much different than the first season, was written much better and bolstered by terrific performances by Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis, respectfully. But season two also found them being struck by inspiration: they discover that people use their games to chat more than anything. And just like that, they’ve stumbled onto the idea of online messaging. It’s exhilarating to watch these characters get struck by inspiration and work towards a net positive goal. Gone is the need to make money and recognition, in its place: a genuine need to make the world a better place, excel at what they do, and change the ideas of what computers are capable of, ideas often came from within the found family of computer nerds that run their company. It’s moving to watch these socially awkward characters help build a better future for themselves.

Netflix’s latest offering The Get Down takes a similar approach. Set in The Bronx in the 70’s, this new series has a multitude of plots (typical of Baz Luhrmann) and an overt sense of romance, but the story at the center of this show is that of young people discovering hip hop and its possibilities. Under the tutelage of Grandmaster Flash, the young cast experiments with poetry, soul music, and their inherent playfulness as they avoid the violence and poverty around them. Episodes build to musical climaxes as the characters transcend their settings and create innovative, personal music that brings their neighborhood together. Main characters Ezekiel and Mylene search within themselves and find genuine talent that they know can bring them happiness amidst the people around them that are either trying to control them, destroy them, or both.

Another interesting facet to these shows is the type of representation they have. These pioneering found families are not run by or even populated by straight white male characters, and the show never ignores this. Donna and Cameron face vicious sexism early in season 3 of Halt and Catch Fire, and the teenagers of The Get Down or often looked down on for their race as well as gender in the case of Mylene. These characters clash against the barriers ingrained into society to be brilliant, and that’s what gives these stories that extra emotional punch.

A similar show that isn’t talked about nearly enough that does similar storylines to both The Get Down and HACF is Steven Universe, which does this to the nth degree. The series follows the main character as he’s raised by three alien warriors (Crystal Gems) in a non-traditional (read: non-heteronormative) family as he learns about his lineage and comes to terms with the history of their alien race (which is also part of his lineage). Remarkably, as the show gets darker and delves into the schism within the society of the Crystal Gems, Steven’s character never becomes cynical. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Steven Universe won’t come to a head with a huge battle that leaves the characters hardened: it’s going to be the love and kindness of a child raised by three surrogate mothers that will save the day. And at the end of the day that’s the endgame of all three of these shows: reaching success, despite the obstacles in your way, through a genuine need to innovate while surrounded by the people that support and inspire you. Grimdark prestige dramas could learn a thing or two.