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Halt and Catch Fire
“Are you safe?” Not even Halt and Catch Fire can tell you.

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AMC's Halt and Catch Fire is set in tech's past. But it just might be TV's future.

The ’80s-set drama is tremendous television in season three.

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.

Nearly every time I’ve visited the set of a TV series — and I’ve visited my fair share — the cast and crew have uttered some variation on the following: "Oh, we’re all such good friends. We hang out all the time!"



And if you’re a big television fan, you’ve probably read this statement often. It’s a common selling point when it comes time to convince people that a show is worth watching. The real-life chemistry the cast has offscreen must translate to the screen itself, right?

Listen: I am here to tell you that 95 percent of the time, when you read that line, it’s bullshit.

I don’t mean that the sets of most TV series are riven with personal conflict and hatred (though some are).

I mean that the sets of most TV series are like any other workplace — people act professionally toward each other, but when the job is over, they go back to their normal lives.

Of course, there are a few sets where that’s not the case, where everybody really does love each other, and if I had to put money on it, I’d bet the set for AMC’s '80s-set tech drama Halt and Catch Fire is one of them.

The cast of Halt and Catch Fire are more than just friendly. When they were filming season three earlier this year, a bunch of them were living together.

How the threat of cancellation brought Halt and Catch Fire’s cast closer

Halt and Catch Fire
Donna and Cameron look over their plans for their company.

The show’s third season — which debuts Tuesday, August 23 at 9pm Eastern on AMC — filmed in Atlanta earlier this year, as spring gave way to muggy, insufferable summer.

For a long time, that third season had been far from a sure thing. When AMC renewed Halt and Catch Fire for season two in August 2014, the network’s decision was deeply surprising to lots of industry observers.

Sure, the show had picked up a few critical fans (myself included) over the course of a first season that started out shaky but steadily improved. But its ratings were incredibly low, it wasn’t driving a lot of media buzz, and its cast was in demand for plenty of other things.

Yet AMC opted to give it a chance. And in season two, despite critical raves, the ratings were even worse.

Shortly before the season two finale even aired, I actually asked Joel Stillerman, the head of original programming for AMC, if he thought Halt and Catch Fire would be coming back, and while he tried to put on an optimistic face on the low numbers, I came away believing the show was done for.

Oh, well, I thought. At least the season two finale — which sent all of the characters to California — served pretty well as a series ender.

But then AMC ordered a third season. (When I asked Stillerman about it, he said the decision was based on "critical momentum.") And in the face of the age of Peak TV, a move from Sundays to Tuesdays that gives it no real lead-in support, and a studio that’s undergoing buyouts, the first five episodes of that third season are as good as anything I’ve seen on TV this year. I was already a fan of Halt and Catch Fire, but season three, should it stick the landing, might be enough to make me into a superfan.

And perhaps it’s all that drama, in the face of a show that just keeps getting better and better, that has bonded the cast so strongly. After all, comrades in arms always grow closer when they believe the cause to be worthy.

Halt and Catch Fire’s storytelling structure often forces the show’s actors to work long hours apart from each other, so when they meet up to shoot the scenes they share, there are enthusiastic greetings and hugs. While I was on the set, they even played weird practical jokes by feeding me misinformation about their co-stars, so that I’d ask questions in interviews that would lead the subject to exclaim, "Who said that about me?!" (Hey, at least it’s a kind of fact-checking.)

And, yeah, as mentioned, they’re roommates. Three of the five main cast members — Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, and Mackenzie Davis — all rented a house together in Atlanta for the duration of filming. When I suggest that this type of arrangement is uncommon, everybody treats it as if it was both a matter of convenience and a way to spend time together and talk about the show after hours.

"We're friends. We're living together. We drive to work together. It's what you do when you work together with someone for a long time. We're just in each other's life for that huge experience," Pace tells me.

Kerry Bishé, who plays budding tech mogul Donna, says the experience extends beyond even her castmates being roommates. "We get together out of work, unscheduled. We plan it ourselves, so that we can all get a sense of the big-picture story of what's going on, and really solicit other actors' opinions on how to make a moment work or what this thing means."

And the more time I spend watching the actors work, the more I realize that Halt and Catch Fire and its cast aren’t like a lot of other TV shows in another way.

Usually by the time a show reaches its third season, the actors largely feel like they know their characters and will try to plow through scenes as quickly as possible. But when I stop by to watch Pace and McNairy film a pivotal scene from the eighth episode, they’re each trying slightly different things with every take — and anytime the scene calls for a close-up on either actor, his scene partner is trying his damnedest to throw him something he might not be able to handle.

"So much of the stuff that we're messing around with gets cut out, but it's more for us to find, 'Oh, maybe it needs a different take or attitude,'" McNairy tells me after the scene has wrapped.

The implication is clear: These guys are still having a good time making this show — and making it as good as it could be.

"We sit around and we talk about the show all day long, and we come to work and do the work," McNairy says. "It's a constant grind. As much as you want to put it down and walk away from it, you can't, because you're just immersed in it."

Halt and Catch Fire is the rare TV drama that’s both terrific and optimistic

Halt and Catch Fire
On Halt and Catch Fire, there’s nothing so broken it can’t be fixed — not even Gordon and Donna’s marriage.

I suppose, now, nearly 1,100 words into this story, I should say something about what Halt and Catch Fire actually is, beyond "1980s-set tech drama." My short argument is: one of the leading faces of the future of TV drama.

My longer argument goes a little bit like this: This is the rare recent TV drama that’s both as good as it is and as optimistic as it is.

I often compare Halt and Catch Fire to The West Wing, despite the lack of obvious connective tissue between them. Like The West Wing, Halt and Catch Fire is about people who fundamentally believe their problems can be solved if they just think hard enough. And they’re usually right!

The risk of this approach, given Halt and Catch Fire’s subject matter, is that the series could fall into a weird fantasy land, where the characters are solving technical issues left and right, all the while making the world a better place. The West Wing certainly had a touch of that quality in its worst seasons.

And the more that Halt and Catch Fire heads online in the early days of the internet, the more the characters occasionally flirt with seemingly inventing or anticipating every major technological innovation of the past 30 years. (This season includes instant messaging, online auctions, and the private internet itself.)

But the show keeps from being overwhelmed by fantasy by staying focused on the details. The characters are always looking for the next little nit to pick, always hunting for bugs in their programs or trying to solve some minuscule hardware issue.

Series creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell (who are known as "the Chrises" and have also taken over showrunner duties this season) devoted an inordinate amount of time in Halt and Catch Fire’s pilot to two men just poring through lines of code, and that attention to detail shines through at all times.

But the pair also concentrates on what matters most to viewers — character development.

Season one occasionally struggled with a bit of a top-down approach to character development. Instead of organically developing the characters, the writers would simply invent reveals that were meant to change everything we knew about the characters.

Instead, they could seem like Silly Putty in the hands of said writers, malleable beings built from remnants of other shows Rogers and Cantwell had watched. (The pilot, while otherwise good, had the faint residue of trying to graft Breaking Bad and Mad Men onto each other.)

Yet around the middle of season one, Halt and Catch Fire largely abandoned this approach and simply let its characters breathe. Supervillain-in-training Joe (Pace) wasn’t the visionary he thought he was, and it was fascinating to watch him realize that. Hardware guy Gordon (McNairy) was coming apart at the seams — but for reasons even he couldn’t entirely understand. Scoundrel boss John "Boz" Bosworth (Toby Huss) proved to be fiercely loyal when needed to be.

And the show’s women proved especially revelatory. The more time it spent on prickly coder Cameron (Davis) and frustrated wife turned tech impresario Donna (Bishé), the more the series found its strength. When the two went into business together in the season one finale, Halt and Catch Fire finally became its best self, and it hasn’t looked back since.

"I didn't notice that was different until the press started coming out for the second season, and all the questions that I was answering in interviews were about how does it feel to be a female entrepreneur. I’m, like, ‘That's so weird. The show never asked me to answer that question,’" Davis says.

But, okay, right, the future of TV drama.

Halt and Catch Fire stands squarely at the center of a new TV movement: the empathy drama

Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire even finds empathy for poor Joe.

Recently, New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote about the trouble with serialized dramas. It’s a good piece, and you should read it, but I think Matt is missing the forest for the Mr. Robot trees.

A pillar of Seitz’s argument is that even the very best TV dramas look more like each other than, say, roughly the top half of all TV comedies — which are, he argues, wildly divergent in tone, intention, and even number of jokes. Look at both UnReal and Mr. Robot, for example, and you can still see the influence of The Sopranos peeking through. But look at both Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Black-ish (to choose two comedies at random), and they seem to occupy different planets entirely.

However, I think Seitz rather cherry-picks the shows he uses at to prove his point. If you look at, say, Orange Is the New Black, Rectify, and, yep, Halt and Catch Fire, you might feel like you’re watching shows from three entirely different TV industries. You might not like all three shows (as I do), but I can just about guarantee that you’ll enjoy one of them.

I will grant Seitz that most of the creative energy in TV right now is on the side of comedy, and I’ll grant him that the Sopranos template is mostly out of gas. Indeed, Halt and Catch Fire’s writers learned that very early on when they tried to build the show around Joe as a Tony Soprano–style protagonist with psychological bruises and deep, dark secrets.

But when they pivoted into more of an optimistic, ensemble-driven show, they also accidentally pivoted into the movement that will define TV drama in the 2010s when we’re looking back on it in the future: the empathy drama. I’m only going to touch briefly on it here, but I wrote much more on the empathy drama (and how Mad Men served as its harbinger) here.

"We really fell in love with TV during the Tony Soprano era of TV. We watched Mad Men. We watched The Wire. Those were the shows that made us want to do this," Rogers tells me. "I think when we wrote the show, it seemed like it was going to be a show about Joe McMillan, the antihero who takes on the tech world. But I think we were part of a wave that exploded that a little bit."

Halt and Catch Fire so obviously and deeply loves all of its characters — even when they’re making huge mistakes — that it can believably build stories that will make you want all of the characters to be right and all of them to be wrong, if only to preserve their relationships. (Season three is built around the best story of this sort the show has found yet — but I won’t spoil it.)

"Chris and I wrote this as a dream project, and we got to make it," Cantwell says. "I love [the characters] as much as family members at this point."

Television has always vacillated between periods when the creative energy was centered on dramas about clearly defined protagonists whom the other characters all reacted to, and periods when the creative energy centered on larger ensembles, filled with lots of characters for the audience to care about.

Now, after a long period of distinct, central antiheroes, the pendulum is slowly but surely swinging back toward ensembles, toward shows where the writers lavish love and attention on lots and lots of characters who are roughly equal in the eyes of the storytelling gods.

And because of these larger ensembles, these shows are also more durable for season after season. If character A gets a lot of stories in season two, maybe she can step aside for character B in season three, then return to the forefront in season four.

Halt and Catch Fire is a good case in point: Joe receded in season two, but he’s back in a big way in season three, separated from the other characters, plotting his return to the top, and dealing with an increasingly complicated personal life.

"He's a very lonely man, Joe, and only getting lonelier the older he gets. And even though he is on top, there's this Gatsby sense of, am I a vacant human being to begin with?" Pace says of his renewed prominence in season three.

That love of the ensemble cast, of the possibilities of actors sharing scenes and bouncing dialogue back and forth, might be the most West Wing–esque thing about Halt and Catch Fire, and that’s where its optimism comes from. Even when these characters screw up, you sense that they will somehow, in some way, be okay.

How Halt and Catch Fire points to the future of TV drama

Halt and Catch Fire
The staff members of Mutiny, Cameron and Donna’s company, celebrate their 100,000th subscriber.

Okay, yes, some of this is an elaborate attempt to make you care about Halt and Catch Fire by inflating its importance. (I mean, I love this series, and I want you to watch it, and I really do think it’s part of an important movement away from the antihero show, but I’m not immediately convinced it’s going to change television or anything.) But, like the show’s cast, I want to see it keep going while maintaining some of its underground cachet.

"I would like to keep doing it, because I love it so much," Davis tells me. "And to do that, you need people to watch it. And I haven't quite cracked the code on how you get more people to watch it but still maintain this secret, underdog status."

Yet when you look at the empathy drama, Halt and Catch Fire might be the show that best exemplifies the movement. When it began, it was a show about people in isolation. Even Gordon and Donna — ostensibly married — didn’t seem to have a very fulfilling or interesting marriage. The characters were islands, cut off from everything but most of all from each other.

It’s fitting, then, that the second and third seasons of Halt and Catch Fire have focused on the very early days of the internet, because through that choice, the series has found a way to revel not in the isolation that drove so many of the great dramas of the past decade but in the connection that is driving so many of them in this decade.

As the characters on Halt and Catch Fire send their little cartoon avatars wandering through a prototype of our current digital world, it’s not difficult to imagine the show as an antithesis, of sorts, to the idea that we’re all in it alone, that when it comes down to it, greatness is defined by what any one person makes of it.

It seems in line with a growing number of shows that argue that greatness comes not from material gain but from building something real and substantial and lasting with those we love — or even just kinda tolerate.

When I bring up, for instance, the chumminess of Halt and Catch Fire’s cast, or their willingness to experiment with new ideas and approaches as they’re filming scenes, I’m not doing so to suggest that the show is some kind of utopian TV set — far from it.

No, I’m suggesting that their collaborative spirit has infiltrated the show itself, slowly and steadily, and accidentally made it one of the most forward-pointing shows on TV.

"I think we all signed on for what we all thought was going to be a slick corporate thriller. There are times when it swung at that, but I think where we landed is something I'm much more excited about and interested in, which is a real human drama about people attempting to collaborate and the things that get in their own way," says Bishé. "They've got these philosophical differences, and they try so hard to reconcile them. They learn things, and they make mistakes. And it's just so beautiful and sad."

I don’t claim Halt and Catch Fire will change television, but I wish it would. The long age of splintering, of singular, often wicked men standing over empires built atop lies and hollowness, is over. Let’s see what happens when TV’s best characters start putting the puzzle back together.

Halt and Catch Fire airs Tuesdays at 10 pm Eastern on AMC. Season three premieres with a special two-hour episode on Tuesday, August 23. Previous seasons are available on Netflix.

Correction: Joel Stillerman is the programming head of AMC, not the overall head of the network.


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