Why isn’t this show the biggest thing since The Wire?
Halt and Catch Fire ought to be huge, but isn’t. Why?
Because it’s about the personal computing revolution?
Okay, sure, the ostensible plot of the show is about modern computer technology. Reverse-engineering the IBM BIOS (season 1) sounds pretty dry. But in the writers’ hands, it isn’t. It’s accessible and exciting, and we see it through the characters’ eyes. The show also manages to convey technology, and problems with technology, without suffering from the embarrassing oversimplifications and expositional dialogue that so many movies and TV shows never get right. Plus, technology isn’t just the backdrop to a plot about people: it’s like a character in its own right, and it changes and develops as the characters change and develop. This is a great show to watch if you’re a tech nerd, but I think it stands even if you aren’t.
Because it’s slow to build?
It is slow. But not as slow as The Wire, and nowhere near as hard to tune your ear to, either. Compared to The Wire, Halt and Catch Fire (HaCF) is downright accessible.
Because the characters are not immediately likeable?
It’s true: they aren’t. You have to wait a little before “flawed but interesting” turns into characters you’re overtly rooting for. But root for them you will.
Because the show is realistic?
I’m so tired of genre screenwriters who actually can’t stretch their imaginations further than sexual violence against women. (Seriously, you could realise a world with literally anything, and that’s what you give us? Fuck off.) I’m also bored of screenwriting that conjures extreme circumstances in order to generate interesting situations for characters — often appearing to miss the point that if we don’t experience those circumstances through the characters, they are meaningless. And yet, there appears to be a huge audience for exactly these sorts of productions, while more nuanced things struggle for ratings.
Look, good screenwriting isn’t about armageddon, spacesuit malfunctions or dragons, though it absolutely can have those things in it. Good screenwriting is about exposing what it’s like to be human, to cope with life’s challenges and defeats, while enjoying the small moments of perfection when they come, knowing that they may only be temporary. Halt and Catch Fire nails this, and I honestly can’t think of much else that does. Yeah, it sometimes goes to dark places, but it can also be very funny, and sometimes genuinely sweet. The show has enormous range, without ever needing to lean on the implausible.
Because it acknowledges complexity?
Many successful movies and TV shows feature lead characters who do not change, grow, or otherwise mature, and/or outcomes that are an easy-to-read amalgam of immutable character traits and standard plot tropes. Maybe people find this reassuring; I find it dull. In contrast, everything that happens in HaCF happens against a backdrop of the characters’ lives up to this point — whether you as the viewer have the whole story there or not (often, it’s only a hint of a suggestion). And if HaCF even has a ‘plot’, it’s pretty hard to define. (Thought experiment: what if an overt ‘plot’ were a symptom of lazy writing?). The show lets you form your simplistic human opinions about who the characters are and what’s happening to them—and then deftly and repeatedly demonstrates that it’s always more complicated.
Because it’s not showy?
It’s not. At least, mostly not: when showiness is required, it’s great, and apposite. But most of the time, the writers and production team keep the lid on. There’s a restraint about HaCF that most TV shows just don’t have the writerly or production maturity to commit to.
Because you’ve never heard of the cast?
Maybe you remember Lee Pace from Pushing Daisies, though he is at times utterly unrecognisable as the same person. Maybe you saw Argo (another piece with great range) and thought the “Canadian” married couple were sweet: say hello Kerry Bishé and Scoot McNairy, who also play a married couple in HaCF, though with a very different slant. If you enjoyed The Martian, you’ll recognise Mackenzie Davis, but in HaCF she is actually given something to do. These are good actors. So good.
And remember, you probably didn’t know who Dominic West, Emilia Clarke, or Jeffrey Wright were once, either.
Because it’s a “straight white people” show?
Mostly 😕, though not entirely. Partly, this is a reflection of the times and the context. And the picture does get somewhat more diverse as seasons and timelines progress. But yeah. (Not that lack of diversity appears to have held other shows back.)
Because it wasn’t distributed right?
According to Wikipedia, HaCF was the first TV show to premiere on Tumblr — cool for the Tumblr crowd, but perhaps not the natural demographic for a show set in the early 80s. Originally the series didn’t stream, but was only available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and then only in Region 1 for a long while. And then eventually S1 made it to Netflix and AMC in the US, and to Amazon Video in the UK (which was when I started watching) and Germany. Finally, late in 2017, all four seasons became available on Netflix (worldwide, as far as I know). That’s a long journey for something that started airing in 2014. This is a show of HBO calibre —better, frankly — that’s spent too much time stuffed down the back of the sofa.
Okay, it sounds great and all, but sometimes I just don’t want to have to think.
You don’t have to? Just enjoy the ride. There are characters; life happens. They deal. It’s great.