August 24, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Halt and Catch Fire”



HALT AND CATCH FIRE is AMC’s charity project; every episode could bear a credit saying “This series is brought to you thanks to the generosity of The Walking Dead.”  That show’s mega-success has allowed AMC to indulge itself with a drama that has only gone downward in the ratings, and has never generated enough buzz to drive social media chatter or awards consideration.  If that’s so, though, it’s a strong argument for corporate philanthropy, because Halt, which was always worthwhile, has only gotten better over time, and the first two hours of its third season suggest that it’s more assured now than it’s ever been.

To the extent that Halt and Catch Fire has registered with pop culture, it’s for the audacity of series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers (with showrunner Jonathan Licso, who has now left to produce Animal Kingdom with John Wells), who completely overhauled their series at the end of Season 1.  Instead of being a story about the birth of personal computers, centering on enigmatic salesman Joe MacMillan and engineer Gordon Clark (Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy, who–TV contracts being what they are–still get 1st and 2d billing), it shifted to the characters previously introduced as Joe’s girlfriend and Gordon’s wife, the brilliant coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and entrepreneurial Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe), and Mutiny, the company they formed to develop online gaming and the chatrooms that would give rise to social media.  Although the ratings didn’t reflect it, that was when Halt indeed caught fire, sparked by the new focus, the characters and the actresses.

Season 3 (the opening hour was written by Cantwell and Rogers and directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer; Hour 2 was written by Co-Executive Producer Michael Saltzman and directed by Kimberly Peirce) is a less dramatic reboot, but nevertheless a clear one.  The action has shifted from relatively sleepy Texas to Silicon Valley, where the industry now lampooned in HBO’s series of that name was still barely out of the working-in-garages stage, and financing deals were for a million or so dollars rather than billions.  When we rejoin Cameron and the Clarks (they’re all sharing the same house, somewhat uneasily), Mutiny is ready to make its next big move, into the kind of peer-to-peer online commerce that would become EBay and Craig’s List.  Cameron and Donna are making the rounds of uninterested (and sexist) venture capitalists, which finally pay off when they meet Diane Gould (newly recurring Annabeth Gish), a fellow mother at Donna’s daughter’s school but also a sharp VC.

For the moment, at least, Gordon is still a puttering-around character, coping with the brain disorder that was diagnosed in Season 2 and without a real place in the story.  But Cantwell and Rogers may finally have found an effective use for Joe, who’s become a faux-Steve Jobs type with a fortune based on an anti-piracy software he pirated from Gordon, whose emotional number he continues to effortlessly have.  It appears that part of the season will be devoted to a battle over the soul of Ryan Ray (Manish Dayal), a visionary coder whose frustration at Mutiny leads him–don’t, Ryan!–into the figurative arms of Joe.  Joe’s self-important bitterness and paranoia makes sense in this context.

The center of Halt, though, is occupied by Cameron and Donna, who may be the least melodramatic female leads on television, played with intelligence and vast emotional detail by Davis and Bishe.  That lack of melodrama may be one reason Halt and Catch Fire has never seized a wide audience (a post-Fear the Walking Dead sneak of Season 3’s first hour on Sunday suggests that’s not likely to change), but the show’s low-key respect for its audience, a style that extends to its careful but not obsessive use of 1980s period detail, is the reason it’s more than earned its continued life.  Season 3, with its themes of online privacy and glass ceilings, may be its most relevant update yet.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."