‘Halt and Catch Fire’: Third Season Needs More Fire

Photos: AMC
Photos: AMC

Now in its third season, Halt and Catch Fire has completed its transformation into a different series from the one it started out as — that is, a bland story about two hustling guys at the dawn of the personal computer age. It’s now a bland show about two hustling women at the dawn of the personal computer age.

As you know if you’ve watched it, or if you’ve read many of the adulatory pieces about it, last season Halt shifted its attention away from obnoxious hustler Joe (Lee Pace) and earnest brainiac Gordon (Scoot McNairy) to focus on tough coder Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and ambitious entrepreneur Donna (Kerry Bishé). They’re now considered, as one male character describes them in the premiere, “the queens of the jungle. … They run the place.” Their characters also pretty much run the show. In the two-hour season premiere on AMC Tuesday night, the core cast of characters has relocated from Texas to Silicon Valley in 1986, to be at the center of the action under new showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, the writers who created Halt.

What has remained consistent throughout Halt‘s run is the slow pace of storytelling. No plot point, no new idea, no new character is ever introduced without being repeated with minimal variations. Unlike other, superior period dramas (The Americans, Masters of Sex, Mad Men), Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t seem to trust that the viewer will know what it’s talking about. Halt doesn’t seem to comprehend what I call the Aaron Sorkin Rule of Drama, which is: It doesn’t matter whether a viewer understands the details of what’s being said, as long as the narrative content and pacing is lively and clever enough; knowledge is acquired through razzle-dazzle osmosis. As I realized when my gaze wandered and I began to contemplate whether my living room needs a paint job, the episodes have very little visual storytelling — you could listen to this show like a radio broadcast and still get the gist of it.

One good thing Halt has done is to introduce Annabeth Gish as a computer executive who has a daughter in the same school Donna’s daughter attends. She portrays a more engaging vessel for the sexism-in-the-workplace theme Halt hammers away at. Were it not for Gish’s Diane Gould, the show would keep telling us sexism existed in 1980s computer culture — not exactly breaking news, then or now — with little dramatic effect.

The other thing Halt has done this season is introduce a young employee, Ryan, played by Manish Dayal. He’s there for a number of reasons, including to represent the expression of youthful ambition meant to resonate with millennial viewers who feel insufficiently appreciated by bad baby boomers (Ryan yelps, “I have ideas!” to any oldster who’ll glance at him). Ryan represents the first generation that takes personal computers for granted, as their birthright, but has yet to become a full-blooded character we can care about.

Big plot points this season include private chat rooms, antivirus software, and Internet commerce. Big distractions this season include what a moody, bearded drag Joe has become. Lee Pace is cut off from the rest of the cast in the early episodes by Joe’s self-imposed myth-making (what Cameron witheringly terms “this whole humble Zen master thing”) and his spouting of oracular pronouncements about the future of technology. He exists, early on in the third season at least, in a parallel plot with the ones involving Gordon and Cameron and Donna. As such, he seems safe from being supplanted by the show creators’ intention to make female characters its focus, but I wouldn’t mind a Halt and Catch Fire that was built around Gish’s Diane Gould rather than these mopey computer geeks.

Halt and Catch Fire premieres Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 9 p.m. on AMC.