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Tech drama Halt and Catch Fire's second season is perfect summer television

The superior second season of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire focuses on the struggling startup company of Cameron (Mackenzie Davis, left) and Donna (Kerry Bishé).
The superior second season of AMC's Halt and Catch Fire focuses on the struggling startup company of Cameron (Mackenzie Davis, left) and Donna (Kerry Bishé).
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

A good summer TV show can be hard to find.



Ideally, it's a fun watch, but not completely braindead. It's the kind of show that gives you a world worth getting lost in, while still having enough going on to engage you intellectually. Mad Men, for instance, started in the summer, and the later seasons of Breaking Bad aired there as well.

And it's AMC (the network that first broadcast those two series) that once again offers the perfect summer show for 2015, with the much-improved second season of Halt and Catch Fire, the network's 1980s-set series about the birth of the information age.

Season one, which struggled in the early going but closed strong, focused on the period when PCs were slowly entering the American mainstream. But season two switches to the earliest days of online gaming and chat rooms, and it's turned the show into a bright, buzzy delight.

If you're interested in catching up, season one is available in its entirety on Netflix, though if you're pressed for time, you can more or less get caught up by watching the season's final two episodes. Season two begins Sunday, May 31, at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Here are five great reasons to set your season pass.

1) For being set in 1985, it's impressively timely

Halt and Catch Fire

Donna and Cameron's dealings with the tech world resonate with the world of 2015 as much as the world of 1985. (AMC)

The second season's primary focal point is the online gaming company Mutiny, which was started by coder Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and hardware specialist Donna (Kerry Bishé), two women navigating the tech world of the '80s. After the first season's attempts to make the show's two male characters (Lee Pace's blowhard Joe and Scoot McNairy's slowly crumbling Gordon, who is Donna's husband) into new variations on classic TV heroes, like Mad Men's Don Draper, simply gender-flipping the cable show template yields impressive, unexpected rewards throughout the first four episodes of season two.

Cameron and Donna know what they're doing, and they've got a great plan — which we know, since we live in the world they're inventing. But they also exist in a time when very few people have computers, much less computers with modems, and figuring out ways to get a larger subscriber base to grow their nascent company seems like a big hurdle to clear.

Season one underlined the fact that Joe and Gordon, in their attempt to build a new PC that amounted to little more than an IBM clone, weren't the innovators they imagined they were. Cameron and Donna actually are, but they also might be about 10 years too early (though the company that evolved into AOL began around the same time).

And the show gets some added verve out of the idea of two women heading up a tech company filled with boorish frat boy types in 1985, as well as the idea of both Joe and Gordon feeling as if they've been sidelined by the women in their lives. Both of these ideas resonate incredibly well with the world of 2015, where women's integration into tech spheres is often unnecessarily difficult, and where too many men wonder what becomes of them if they're not in charge.

2) It's funny

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire too often wanted to remind you of how important everything about it was. It was telling a story you hadn't seen before! It was following in the footsteps of AMC's other shows! It was about important men, doing important things! The show definitely had a sly sense of humor, but it often got buried underneath the show's flopsweat.

Season two, then, is refreshingly brisk and biting. It still takes the time to tell character stories, but they have nuance, depth, and jokes. Look at this preview clip AMC released from the season premiere. The dialogue ricochets along, as director Juan José Campanella's camera follows Donna through the house where Mutiny has set up shop.

Good dialogue can't save a weak story (as we saw often in season one), but when the story is strong, it can help everything else sparkle. Season two's scripts, from a team led by creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, as well as showrunner Jonathan Lisco, balance the show's more serious moments with a wit that makes everything that much more fun to watch.

3) The cast is great

Halt and Catch Fire

Character actor Toby Huss plays a former star salesman humbled by an embezzling charge. (AMC)

The show didn't seem to know what it had in Davis and Bishé back in season one. At times, it seemed like it desperately wanted Donna to seem like the no-fun wives of so many other dramas, but Bishé's natural charisma and spirit forced them to give her much greater agency than, say, Betty Draper ever had. Similarly, Cameron was written as a one-dimensional punk programmer early in season one, before Davis's work forced the writers to explore what really drove her.

That could have left the show's male leads stranded and without anywhere to go. But by actually making that the story for both characters, the series has given McNairy and Pace interesting material to play around with. What happens when Gordon becomes a stay-at-home dad, in an era when such a thing was much less common? And who is Joe when robbed of all his bluster and forced to work for a living?

Smaller supporting characters played by Toby Huss (as a former executive humbled by an embezzling charge), Aleksa Palladino (as Joe's new girlfriend), and James Cromwell (as that new girlfriend's father) only add to the richness of the supporting cast. The show doesn't yet have as many great characters as other cable dramas, but it's rapidly gaining.

4) It isn't afraid to take its time

The season premiere has jumped forward in time to 1985, after season one ended in early 1984 with the airing of the famous Macintosh "1984" ad. That allows the series to skip past stuff it doesn't particularly want to cover — like Gordon building yet another PC that earns him greater riches, or Joe's time in the Texas wilderness — and pick the story up when it's dramatically interesting again. But it also doesn't strain to force everybody in the cast back into the same room together immediately.

Since this is an ongoing TV series, we know that everybody on the show will be forced to work together again soon enough. But the second season takes its time playing around with the show's new status quo to see how the characters are defined by the change in their circumstances.

In many ways, that's the mark of a confident TV series. Nobody thought Walter White was going to stop cooking meth forever in the early going of Breaking Bad season three, but those episodes (which kicked off the show's best season) offered a great character study of who the man had become over the course of the show so far. By doing something similar, Halt and Catch Fire is able to better define its characters (who needed said definition) by putting them into circumstances that are rough opposites of the ones they were in in season one.

5) It's a reminder that any TV show can get a whole lot better at any time

Halt and Catch Fire

Joe (Lee Pace) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy) had big dreams in season one. Now they're waiting for something new. (AMC)

One of the reasons I love television so much is because it's a medium where hope springs eternal. A show I wrote off at one point — as I did this one — can quickly become one of my new favorites, with just the right tweaks here and there. And it's a lot of fun to have that happen, sometimes completely unexpectedly.

The first season of Halt and Catch Fire was one big long con, designed to ultimately reveal just how hollow and without any actual, innovative ideas the putative protagonist Joe was. Season two, then, is when the story really starts, and all of the things that didn't quite work in season one snap into place, simply from the show's shift of focus.

There are things that don't work still, like the way Joe sometimes feels like he's completely adrift from the rest of the series, or how the show's exposition trends toward the clunky from time to time. But overall, season two moves with the confidence and verve of the much better series the show apparently always had lurking within it. The best TV takes chances, and if nothing else, this show is finally doing that.

Halt and Catch Fire airs Sundays on AMC at 10 pm Eastern. Season one is available to stream on Netflix.

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