Tonight, AMC will power up the second season of its tech-based drama Halt & Catch Fire. While the series experienced a few creative stumbles during its inaugural year (the title was certainly an obstacle), it eventually honed in on its more promising elements, acquiring significant critical support in the process. Set during the Texas tech revolution in the early 1980s, the first season followed a group of damaged dreamers attempting to capitalize on the recent boom by designing their own improved version of the IBM personal computer. This ragtag group included mysterious idea man Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), prodigious coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), meek, yet resourceful engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) and a good ol’ boy businessman named John Bosworth (Toby Huss) who becomes their unlikely ally.
While Season Two begins with the core group fragmented, the opening episodes find the show’s creative team—quite the contrary—working in perfect sync and firing on all cylinders. Currently, the ten-episode first season is available to stream on Netflix, and I would definitely recommend getting up to speed on what has quietly become one of the best programs on TV.
In our era of “too much good TV,” here are five reasons to make Halt & Catch Fire Season Two part of your Sunday viewing schedule.
Technology and technological innovation provide the crux of the entire Halt & Catch Fire narrative. I don’t pretend to be an expert on 80s computer history (I was born in the waning months of 1989), but I have it on good authority that the show knows what it’s selling. Plus, just hearing the beeps, buzzes and whistles of that old dial-up sound does bring back some nostalgic memories. In a more pop culture context, Halt also represents the first prestige cable show about gaming, with Cameron and Donna teaming up towards the end of the first season to spearhead a scrappy start-up that designs and sells computer games. In exploring the dawn of the gaming community and its earliest architecture, the show offers a fascinating insight into a historical subculture that is rarely (if ever) probed for great stories.
Setting a narrative in the 1980s always carries the risk of visually catering to the more romanticized and broad view of the decade. It’s certainly easy to picture a lesser version of Halt complete with garish primary colors, shoulder pads and sequences set to the Big Hits of the time (i.e. Cameron codes to the sounds of “Maniac”). Luckily, the show takes great care in its approach to the decade, particularly when it comes to its musical choices. Music supervisor, Thomas Golubi? makes each episode feel akin to the experience of going through your cool, older sibling’s record collection. The first season features cuts by Talking Heads, XTC, Bad Brains, The Weirdos and Violent Femmes, among others. The second season premiere alone includes a song from Husker Dü’s seminal Zen Arcade. Moreover, the show is also not averse to including music that, while not necessarily of the time period, perfectly captures the spirit of the series and its characters (“Red Eyes” by War on Drugs ends one episode and Suuns’ “2020” soundtracks a pivotal scene in the Season One finale). Adding to this respectability, the show’s composer Paul Haslinger was a member of the 80s era incarnation of Tangerine Dream.
Let me start by saying the entire cast of Halt is phenomenal and deserving of praise in their own right. That being said, as a child of the 90s it’s my duty to inform everyone that ARTIE FROM THE ADVENTURES OF PETE & PETE IS IN THIS SHOW! That’s like finding out that a former Power Ranger has been nominated for an Oscar, or that an actor from a weird gum commercial you recall seeing during Saturday morning cartoons was a regular on Breaking Bad. Yes, I’m aware Toby Huss was on HBO’s Carnivale, but (for shame) I have not seen it.
Putting ’90 Nickelodeon nostalgia aside, however, Huss really does perfectly embody the role. In an interview with Paste, he explained that the creators originally envisioned Bosworth as more of an “older, sedentary kind of conservative Republican Texas guy.” Upon seeing Huss’ take, however, the writers wisely chose to pivot the character to reflect the actor’s more dynamic approach. As someone with close family in the state, it’s great to see a portrayal of a genuine Texan that doesn’t fall into the stereotypical trappings. Indeed, despite Bosworth’s bravado, Huss also endows him with a great sense of humanity and vulnerability. Though Season One lacked the real estate to really explore the character, Season Two places Bosworth front-and-center with the main cast where he belongs.
Ironically, there were more women involved in tech in the ‘80s than there is today. Halt effectively honors their contribution via the characters of Cameron and Donna. It’s a particularly great creative direction given that, while this current TV Golden Age has provided us many memorable and iconic TV protagonists/antiheroes, a disproportionate amount of them have been white men. Initially, the show looked to be following this template, with Lee Pace’s Joe set to be the visionary antihero, with Gordon acting as his more relatable foil and Cameron serving as the token “kickass chick” role. Instead, the show quickly unveiled Cameron to be so much more than a cliché collection of “punk girl” attributes. Not to mention Gordon’s wife, Donna, who at first seemed to be filling the requisite “disapproving spouse” role, then proved not only to be shockingly supportive of her husband’s radical dreams but also a more-than-capable programmer who could run circles around her male counterparts.
Donna quickly developed into my favorite character of Season One and putting her in a business partnership with Cameron at the season’s end was an inspired choice. If nothing else, the show’s surprise renewal made me feel overjoyed that I would actually get to witness this plotline play itself out. And, true to form, many of the best moments from the second season’s initial episodes center around the duo’s bantering. In an environment characterized largely by complex, intriguing men, Halt offers up two of TV’s best female characters.
Seriously, just look at it—
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.