Saturday, July 11, 2015

How Halt and Catch Fire became one of TV's most fun shows

I was always more of a fan of Halt and Catch Fire than most people.  Critics gave the pilot above average reviews, citing their skepticism about AMC only sending out one episode, and getting hung up on very thin similarities between it and Mad Men.  Meanwhile, I thought it was a compelling start, one promising enough to earn an A- in my Pilot Talk series.  While I felt like the show struggled to fully realize the potential of its first episode over the course of its 10-episode debut season, getting bogged down in its own self-importance and delivering some uneven storytelling, I still found this look into the beginning stages of the computer age a relatively painless way to spend an hour.

Even in those worst moments of season one, Halt and Catch Fire always struck me as the kind of show that could take "the leap" in its second season.  All the pieces were there -- great cast, talented group of writers and directors, terrain relatively unexplored on television -- they just weren't quite fitting together yet.  Of course, shows like these can just as easily flounder, and it wasn't difficult to imagine this series settling into being another mediocre AMC show.  It could have doubled down on its fascination with Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the enigmatic software salesman who consisted mostly of platitudinous speechifying and very little depth.

Luckily, it went the way of improvement -- we're halfway through the show's second season, which has been a lively, massively entertaining piece of television.  And this marked growth is no mystery either.  The creative success of Halt and Catch Fire can be attributed to a few key changes.

The show rebooted its premise
Season one's story engine was driven by Joe's quest to reverse engineer the revolutionary IBM personal computer, roping in downtrodden former system builder Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and post-collegiate programming wunderkind Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis).  Part of the problem with that is that it's only a season long story, and it was difficult to imagine what the long-term version of the show would be.  They could've tried to stretch things out even though history was not on these characters' sides, but showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers realized that there weren't many more places to take this IBM plot by the end of season one.

Instead, the show embodied the maverick spirit of its characters and wiped everything off the table.  Season two found the show taking place a year after the events of the season one finale, where Joe left Cardiff Electric and Cameron started up her own company called Mutiny.  Time jumps haven't been a revolutionary choice for a long time, but this fast forward feels like such an important move for this series to make.  As opposed to trying to force a way for the show to be centered around Cardiff again, season two has refocused its story on Mutiny, a company aiming to be at the forefront of computer gaming and online interactivity.

The lead and secondary characters have swapped roles
As a result of this shift in subject matter, Halt has also been forced to change its perspective too. Season one was primarily the Joe and Gordon show.  Most of the story was devoted to trying to peel back the many layers of Joe, or Gordon wrestling with his past failures and dissolved dreams.  Cameron and Joe's wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) had roles, sure, but they were mostly in relation to the two male protagonists.

By necessity, season two has reallocated its weight strongly towards Donna and Cameron in their trials and tribulations at Mutiny, and it's all the better for it.  (Now, the unemployed Gordon is playing the traditional role a wife character would play, sitting on the sidelines and screwing things up any time he takes a step off the bench.  Meanwhile, Joe has spent most of the season on an entirely different playing field.)  Of all the various character permutations on the show, Donna and Cameron have always been the best, even back in the first season.  They're just fascinating foils for one another, and watching the ways their approach to work and womanhood clash has been the biggest treat of this year.  Season two has also done wonders with making them more engaging characters on their own too.  Donna was never the wet blanket wife archetype that critics consistently tried to box her into during the first season, but we're really seeing that now.  She's kind, supportive, strong-willed, and comes with a whole set of hopes and dreams that make her one of the most fascinating and likable characters on TV.  The Cameron of season one was very inconsistently written, but season two has gotten a handle on her petulance, manifesting it in ways that may not always make her enjoyable to watch, but reliably compelling and logical.

There's no real precedent for a show making its two male leads take a backseat in favor of two female characters, and it's a big reason why Halt is so gripping this year.  Most of that is due Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishe's electrifying chemistry.  Davis and especially Bishe are giving two of the year's best performances.  "10Broad36," last Sunday's excellent episode, provided Bishe with an opportunity to give an Emmy-worthy tape, as Donna slowly unraveled after the pressure of keeping all of the threads of her life together finally became too much.  This ultimately lead to her decision at the end of the episode to abort the baby she found out she was carrying at the beginning of the season, and Bishe plays every moment with such power and grace.

It has gone through the natural process of finding itself
Television shows rarely come out of the gate as the strongest versions of themselves.  Time is needed for everything to gel, for everyone involved to get on the same page about what show they should be making and execute that idea.  Much of Halt and Catch Fire's creative uptick can be traced back to that simple explanation: the show needed a while to figure itself out, and now that it has gotten that, it's charging on full speed ahead.  Just look at how much stronger the direction has been this season.  There may still be too many dutch angles, but there's an exhilarating, kinetic feeling to the handheld scenes at Mutiny that was absent last year.  And the directors are smart about framing choices, especially Larysa Kondracki, who continuously set characters against a backdrop of machines and progress in "10Broad36."

The writing is much stronger too.  This year, the show especially seems to get off of on playing around with dramatic irony.  Almost every character holds a piece of information that others don't.  With Gordon's illness, Donna's terminated pregnancy, and whatever Joe may have up his sleeve looming in the mix, the tension comes from waiting for all of these precarious secrets to come crashing down.  And of course, we as the audience know so many things none of these characters do, simply because their present is our past.  It's a complex house of cards that the writers are building.

Watching the critical turnaround on Halt has almost been as fun as watching the show itself.  Critics have been writing pieces left and right about this fantastic second season, and this collective feeling of falling in love with a show along with rest of the world has provided a joy that has few competitors.  So here's another article extolling the virtues of Halt and Catch Fire season two.  Hop on the train and feel that joy with us.

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