8.8

Halt & Catch Fire Remains Criminally Underrated, as Solid and Confident as Ever

(Episode 3.01, "Valley of the Heart's Delight" and 3.02, "One Way or Another")

TV Reviews Halt and Catch Fire
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<i>Halt & Catch Fire</i> Remains Criminally Underrated, as Solid and Confident as Ever

It doesn’t take a genius to draw a parallel between Halt & Catch Fire and Mutiny, the company at the core of its story’s center. What started as a rough-around-the-edges project with numerous bugs but a ton of potential (i.e. Season One) quickly crystalized into an impressive—if still lovably scrappy—operation that shed the excess weight and honed in on its best attributes (i.e. Season Two). Now in its third “stage,” the company has experienced a major creative shift by relocating to San Francisco. Similarly, the show itself has undergone a massive overhaul with the departure of series showrunner Jonathan Lisco, and the upping of co-creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers to co-showrunner positions.

Here’s where the comparison falls apart—whereas Season Three opens with Mutiny on literal and figurative shaky grounds (employees live in fear of a seismic earthquake demolishing them), the show returns as confident and as solid as ever.

In a year that has brought back buzzed-about shows only to have them be crushed—or at the very least, severely damaged—under the weight of their own hype (Mr. Robot, UnREAL), the criminally low-rated Halt & Catch Fire has somewhat of an advantage in that it has no expectations to live up to except its own. Between this, FX’s The Americans and HBO’s exceptional The Leftovers, one has to wonder if there’s not something to be said for the advantages of low-ratings. Namely, when you fly under the radar, you don’t experience the shrill of a thousand voices—both online and in reality—telling you how your show should be run.

Within the world of the series, it’s 1986 and a San Francisco-based Mutiny is struggling to keep up with its Valley brethren. The problems are apparent from the opening, with Donna and Gordon frantically attempting to fix their mainframe in time for a big display. And though the company retains several loyal members—mostly the recurring characters from Texas—there are growing dissidents among the ranks. Most notably, a young coder named Ryan (Manish Dayal), who pitches several ideas about how to revamp Mutiny’s system to Donna and Cameron (all perfectly valid) that they then dismiss, citing a lack of bandwidth. More than likely, however, Cameron’s objections can be linked to her own control issues and the fact that Ryan is criticizing her baby. While it’s tempting to merely dismiss Ryan as a young punk who doesn’t know his place, his speech to Gordon in the second episode about having ideas and not feeling noticed does recall a time when Donna and Cameron—brilliant programmers in their own right—were marginalized throughout the first season due to their gender.

Speaking of Donna and Cameron, while the story’s location may have shifted, some problems remain the same. The second installment finds the two pitching around to different companies for funding to an expansion program that amounts to a proto-eBay, Amazon community. One potential avenue leads right where you’d expect—a pair of sleazy Valley bros promising the sky and then taking the duo to dinner for what they expected would be a quid pro quo hook-up—but the second is more stinging. The seeds are planted in the first episode when Donna and Gordon meet up with a young divorcee after their respective children end up getting into fight at school. Aside from some general awkwardness, she seems to take the incident as a bit of “girls being girls.” Later, however, she turns out to be an exec and Donna and Cameron end up pitching her their Mutiny plan, only to be instantly dismissed. Simultaneously angry and perplexed, the women wonder what they did wrong. As it turns out, there is another company with a similar (albeit not as good) gimmick that’s beating them to market. Rather than despair, Donna and Cameron hatch a plan to team up with the female exec to buy the other program and fold it into theirs.

Just as with last year, Halt’s female community continues to expand and thrive. Whereas things are looking up for the women of Halt, however, the men remain trapped in their various wounded ego pain cycles. Having tried to become a better person last year, Joe MacMillan—who cashed in on his anti-virus software company—now seems to have shed any remaining traces of his humanity and re-tooled himself as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off, complete with glasses and a meticulously groomed five-o-clock shadow. Unlike in previous premieres, Joe does not make his first physical appearance until the end of the first hour, existing as a sort of villainous specter casting a shadow over other characters’ lives. His influence not only ensnares the impressionable Ryan, who very publicly quits Mutiny to go work for him, but also inflicts further psychological damage on Gordon, who still seems to be reeling from his nerve diagnosis last season.

The lone bright light in this sea of masculine dysfunction continues to be Toby Huss’ Bosworth. Now an active, pivotal member of the company, the show has wisely put Bosworth front and center. The first two episodes alone display Huss’ widely divergent talents, whether it’s belting Sinatra in the opening scene, trying (and failing) to control a toy robot or turning on his aggressive, intimidating Texan persona when a disrespectful Ryan gives him lip. The character has come a long way from simply being an interchangeable suit in the first season, and Huss’ gradual promotion speaks volumes about the creative team’s awareness of the show’s strengths.

The opening chapters of Halt Season Three are not perfect—in an ideal world, Ryan would have been a character we’d seen seeded before he betrayed our heroes—but it certainly is a more-than-impressive kickoff to a new year. Whereas Halt once stood out as the offbeat show with the funny name, it now has firmly emerged as one of television’s most compelling dramas. There’s an “upgrade” joke to be made here but, honestly, the series deserves so much better, so I will refrain.

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