It’s hard to make good TV about Silicon Valley and its predecessors. Especially a drama. Watching a bunch of nerds talk about coding and CPUs is appealing to a only a painfully small fraction of the population—but someone definitely thought that same thing about advertising before Matthew Weiner trundled into AMC and pitched Mad Men. That show proved even the most boring subject matter could be riveting with the right approach. Over the course of its four seasons, Halt and Catch Fire, which ended earlier this year, discovered the fascinating, frustrating human side to the soulless monsters who built Silicon Valley.
But nobody watched it. The show never cracked a million live viewers after the pilot episode. It sat firmly on the bubble every season, getting greenlit only by the grace of AMC. But because no one was watching, and because AMC was content to let it carry on, Halt and Catch Fire had the opportunity to retool and experiment and become one of the best shows on television.
It all starts in 1983 Dallas—known as the Silicon Prairie. Tandy, Texas Instruments, Radio Shack, and dozens of other big tech companies called Dallas/Fort Worth home in the late 70s and through the 80s. Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) spends his days barely awake working for the fictional Cardiff Electric. His wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) is a hardware engineer at TI. They live a pleasant and perfectly mundane life with their young daughters in Dallas.
Then Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), a mysterious former IBM man, shows up at Cardiff with a plan to build the next big thing. He’s brought along his sort of hook up, Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a genius college drop out and computer programmer.
What these four end up building in the painfully uneven first season doesn’t actually matter. What’s being built in each season of the show never actually matters. Sometimes it’s a shade of what would make Compaq a dominant force in the 90s, other times it’s McAfee or AOL or even an algorithm that would make Google great.
The “thing” isn’t what matters on Halt and Catch Fire. Rather it’s the people themselves, a mad mix of geniuses and those who consider themselves geniuses. Frequently the show is a scathing condemnation of what makes the tech business tick and why the big ideas seem to so often fail. Friends and partners screw each other over for a buck after trying to build something refreshing and innovative. Money always triumphs over vision. The ordinary excel while the extraordinary frequently find themselves restricted.
These aren’t the rockstars of the tech scene. They’re not Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. They’re the other guys. The ones best remembered as a name in someone else’s Wikipedia entry.
It could be a positively pessimistic show, but there’s an engine of optimism at its heart. The main characters are ultimately not driven by the need to succeed or make a billion dollars or wind up on the cover of Forbes or Wired. They’re driven only by the need to see an idea, no matter how initially nebulous, to fruition. They want to create, even if its a ripoff of what everyone else is doing, or doomed to fail because we, the viewer, have the luxury of hindsight and know what happens to companies like Gateway and Compuserve.
But what’s really extraordinary, and what had me start a rewatch almost as soon as the perfect finale was over (the fourth season is easily one of the best seasons of a television show ever produced) is the epic, if platonic, romance at the center of Halt and Catch Fire. As the first season was winding down the writers realised they’d miscalculated. People weren’t interested in the gangly mystery man that was Joe MacMillian or the tortured genius of Gordon Clark. Instead it was Cameron, the brash kid genius, and Donna, the consistent (and quietly ruthless) working mom that had viewers attention. So the show leaned in, letting Gordon and Joe drift while Donna and Cameron worked together to build a company and take on a wealthy and sexist establishment.
As retoolings go, it was one of the most successful of its kind, and each season just built on that central relationship (and the skyrocketing quality of the second season). It was actually thrilling to watch two wildly different women forge a work romance, than fall apart, and then struggle to reunite, professionally speaking.
Late in the final season Donna plays a universally panned video game Cameron designed and she notices what all the critics missed and I was stuck half standing on my couch begging for Donna to call Cameron to tell her she’d beaten a video game. That’s a helluva a feat: to bring emotional resonance to a crummy game.
Halt and Catch Fire is full of moments like that. Instances that have no right to punch you in the gut as often as they do. All four seasons are currently on Amazon Prime Video so if you find yourself needing something to think about besides Star Wars or the purposeful crumbling of our internet infrastructure, you should give it a binge. Just be forewarned, the first season can be a slog, but every season after makes it worth it.