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‘Halt and Catch Fire:’ The best show nobody watched

By Noah Harper

Section: Arts

September 8, 2017

AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” is a show that deserved better. Averaging 337,000 viewers last season (compared to the 16.5 million for this season’s “Game of Thrones” finale), “Halt and Catch Fire” has been low-rated for years, without ever really gaining any traction—so how did it get to four seasons?

“Halt,” set in the mid-1980’s, is about a handful of technological visionaries, computer scientists, and electrical engineers that find themselves on the verge of a computing revolution. Initially in Texas (the Silicon Prairie), and then San Francisco, the show adeptly conveys that exciting feeling that something world-changing is just around the corner.

The title, “Halt and Catch Fire,” refers to a computer command that essentially tells the system to self-destruct. Self-destruction is a powerful, running theme of the show—there’s no antagonist here in the traditional sense, only human beings, flawed and with fragile egos, trying to work together to make something revolutionary.

Watching the first couple episodes of the fourth and final season, I was reminded how truly good this show is. It has made me care about the characters (no small feat) and it’s a joy to see them back together again, even if it’s just for one last time.

The three-dimensional characters are key: There’s Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the young, idealistic computer genius who doesn’t play well with others; Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the manipulative, visionary entrepreneur; Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), the brilliant engineer with brain damage; and his tech-savvy wife Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) who supports the family and has aspirations of her own.

These four main characters are compelling and they’re easy to empathize with. Over the past two years of watching, I’ve become really invested in them. In a crowded TV landscape of over 500 scripted shows (and counting) currently in production, “Halt and Catch Fire” creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers made a stand-out show with sympathetic characters who I actually care about.

It’s the excitement of watching the characters come together and try to create something that changes everything that makes “Halt” so compelling. But they’re human, flawed, their own worst enemies, and seeing characters you’re invested in try to work together despite their flaws on a visionary project is extremely interesting and enjoyable.

Part of the joy of “Halt and Catch Fire” comes from knowing that our characters really are on the precipice of world-altering discoveries. While I’m not particularly knowledgeable about technology, I do know that laptops and internet browsers and web search didn’t exist in the eighties, and seeing Joe MacMillan get an idea for the first laptop computer, or Cameron Howe come up with the concept for online gaming is exciting—because you know they’re onto something.

The relatability of these characters is key, and it’s why I think “Halt and Catch Fire” is such a great, criminally under-watched show. You don’t have to be a technology geek to enjoy the show, the protagonists are so deftly written and acted, that understanding tech jargon isn’t necessary. Technology is a framing device for a great story about relationships over time, an emotional journey that we can all easily relate to.

But if the show’s so great, then why doesn’t anyone watch it—how is it even still on TV? We live in an interesting time in television, when the lifespans of shows are no longer solely dictated by their ratings. Sure it’s great if something gets tens of millions of viewers, but not every show can be “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” and TV executives have a new rubric for deciding what to keep on the air.

FX’s Head of Original Programming Nick Grad said it this way at the ATX Television Festival, “The audience gets a vote, we [the network executives] get a vote, critics get a vote, and if you can get two of those three, you’re probably gonna stay on the schedule.”

“Halt and Catch Fire” is universally beloved by TV critics. They’ve been yelling praises for almost four years now, and I think that the executives at AMC realized that they had something special too. It’s a show that, even though there’s not really an audience for it right now, has the potential of becoming something more in the future. It has value as part of AMC’s brand, and it’s content that they can get revenue from deals with streaming services.

In seemingly dark and hopeless times, we need shows like this more than ever. Shows that are about real people trying to put aside their differences and change the world—and all the inherent problems that come with it. “Halt and Catch Fire” possesses an optimism about the future that’s not really represented right now, and we need more shows like it.

So, I know it’s too late to give “Halt and Catch Fire” any more runway—Season 4 is its last, after all—but instead, I ask that you give it a shot on Netflix, where you can stream the last three seasons, and, if you like it, tell other people about it. I think it’s something quite special and rewarding that a lot of people would really enjoy—I sure have.

The fourth and final season of “Halt and Catch Fire” airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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