When Halt and Catch Fire started three years ago, my sole reason for watching it was Lee Pace, who is all kinds of awesome and I couldn’t understand why his shows kept getting cancelled. (If you haven’t seen Wonderfalls or Pushing Daisies, go hunt them up on Netflix or YouTube or wherever, stat. You have been missing out for years. Also, boo, Fox and ABC respectively, boo.) I was mildly interested that it was filmed in Atlanta, but mostly it was to watch Lee Pace. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect–I think I had an idea that it would be a bit like Mad Men, but set in Silicon Valley. Not knocking Mad Men, which was great, but I was getting a bit bored with the white-male-mid-life crisis angst and tragedy. It has been the primary focus of quite a bit of truly brilliant television in recent years–Breaking Bad being another example–and said television has featured some women and even (rarely) central characters who aren’t white, but brilliant television always inspired dozens of not-as-great imitations, usually with less imagination and even less effort at representation.
Mad Men this is not. Corporate culture certainly has a presence in the story, but this time it holds no allure or glamour; it is a world that is stifling, threatening, something that three of the four, if not all, of the main characters are fighting to overthrow, not to conquer. They are not a part of of it and they have no wish to be. Neither is this a male-dominated show, which has been glossed over or gotten lost in some of the advertising. It is about two men, two women, and the rise of the home computer industry. The acting is excellent.
Underneath that, of course, it is about so much more. It is about two couples: one pair who constantly have to negotiate their way between a desire for the stereotypical suburban home and 2.5 children and making the most of their considerable talent for engineering and mathematics, and the other whose relationship is pretty much just a hot mess. It is about two women who decide that they don’t want to be relegated to support roles in the lives of the men they work for and live with, and how they struggle with suddenly being seen as a threat by those same men, consciously and otherwise. It is a close comparison of the intersections between work and home life change when you have a family and all that that entails.
It isn’t a perfect television series–some episodes are better than others, and some of the subplots are at times more compelling than the central story. It could do better in terms of representation, although it’s doing better than some shows in this regard. I’m also finding that the effort to cover all the major leaps in the evolution of the computing world are feeling a bit strained. I know just enough about coding and hacking to have found that aspect of The Honourable Woman a constant irritation in watching the last few episodes of show, but not enough to be distracted by any errors present in this one. What does bother me is that, in the world of the story, these four people seem to responsible for most, if not all of the major innovations that we now take for granted–the initial Apple vs. Microsoft fight was substantial enough, but some six years later they’ve also created the seeds of e-bay, online multi-player games, and it looks like someone might be about to invent a thinly-disguised Sirius radio. With the sheer number of people who were and are drawn to this industry–something that is reflected in the show, whenever a scene takes place in public or business setting–it feels disingenuous to present this quartet of characters as the only really imaginative innovators in the field, and placing so much of the burden of that innovation on those four characters takes away from the parts of the story that make the show compelling.
The thing I love best about the show is that it has two fully developed female leads who work and live in what is still a male-dominated industry, but beyond that I love that the writers decided to maintain their focus on these four characters, and the development of the story constantly realigns their alliances and allegiances enough to keep their interactions interesting but not so much that all four come off as sociopaths who have no real grasp of what fidelity is. (Joe is a sociopath, but he’s written that way; the other three are sane, if damaged to varying degrees.) I also really like that the show’s title is an integral metaphor for the shared tendency of the characters to self-sabotage their emotional and professional relationships; titles are important when it comes to stories, but televisions shows are usually just named for their character or a setting. It’s unusual to have such an apt title continue to reflect an important aspect of the story, and I think a lot of the reviewers who dismissed the show in its first two seasons didn’t make that connection–I’ve only ever seen it mentioned in order to explain the term’s meaning as a coding command.
I don’t tend to read a lot of reviews for any one show, and the few I’ve read over the past three years for this one have always made me feel like the decision to renew it must be balanced on a knife-edge; it has always been highly rated by calculators such as Rotten Tomatoes, but it seemed to suffer from a lack of interest rather than negative opinion. Renewals for the second and third season were thus pleasant surprises. (Most of those reviews I have read have complained about the show’s lack of substance, to the point that I wonder if they actually watched the thing. It has substance in plenty; it is just that you can only take the drama of literally creating code and machinery so far. After that the human elements of egotism and jealousy and fecklessness and just plain wanting something from another person have to take over, otherwise you have no story.)
Season three seems to be attracting more attention, and more positive reviews, than the first two, so I’m finally allowing myself to hope for season four. Season three is currently airing Tuesday nights on AMC in the U.S.; in the UK it is available on Amazon Prime.