Sunday, February 11, 2018

Halt and Catch Fire Season 1

This post comes out of a new series of writing I do on ASOIAF meta and other topics of popular culture over at the Patreon of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour. If you like to read stuff like this, chime in just 1$ and you get access to everything I write. If you throw in 2$, you even get access to mini-podcasts I'm doing with Sean T. Collins answering questions by listeners of the podcast. Give the Patreon a look!
Based on Sean's recommendation in the BLAH about 2017 in review, I started watching "Halt and Catch Fire". Everywhere you look, people say it's an ok show until it becomes great in season 3. I'm usually not hot for wasting two seasons worth of time until something becomes worthwhile, but Sean isn't someone to say this lightly, so I started on it. This is my review of season 1, spoilers and all. Short version: an ok show. 

Now, the show has some AMC qualities going for it instantly. For one, it has a strong sense of visuals, giving the 80s Texas a distinct look, much like Breaking Bad's New Mexico (not as in "alike", but as in "a distinct look for the show"). The actors are generally strong, the plot is compelling enough to drive the show onward, and the setting of early 80s tech industry has a fresh feeling to it, and I guess it improves a lot if your familair with the real history of the scene on which the show is based. 
My main problem with season 1 is characters and writing. As far as I know, the idea was something akin to Mad Men, but most of the time, it feels more like "The Newsroom" (although not nearly as gratiating). 
Many of the character arcs have a disctinctly Sorkinsonian feel about them. The world is divided into mundane workers, not worthy of the more than the most superficious characterization, whereas our main characters are the few geniuses and portrayed as such. 
This leads to a lot of bad dialogue, in which a person being a genoius is told rather than shown. This is especially true in the case of Gordon, who gets a lot of this. We never really see why he is such a genius, or what genius-like things he does. With Joe at least, we can see the Steve-Jobs-analogy in his sweeping rhetoric and pitches. But Gordon? You just have to take it in good faith that he's a genius, because everyone says so. 
With Cameron, it's a bit more obvious, as she is described as a manic workaholic and functioning sociopath, which in Sorkian worlds is always a necessary condition for this kind of genius; her character isn't really interesting throughout the season.
The most vexing detail about it all, though, is the rampant sexism throughout it, and it's not presented in a Mad-Men-way. Gordon's wife Donna doesn't have much more to do than to praise and support Gordon. Cameron isn't a strong female character because she behaves like an ass, that makes her just a female character that behaves like an ass. The list goes on. 
What really breaks the first season for me and prevents it from passing "medriocre", the monicker of an "ok show", is that the main characters are, on the whole, pretty unlikeable. Gordon is such an unpleasant person, Joe is a charismatic enigma with a god complex and no regard for other people. Donna is just shallow, and Cameron, again, behaves like an ass. 
What makes this insufferable at times is that the show is utterly ignorant about this. It's not like Don Draper, who we are supposed to loathe. These guys are presented as our main characters, and when Donna fawns over Gordon's perceived greatness, the show is serious about it. 
With this territory it chose to enter comes a great reliance on tropes. Those tropes may have been fresh and entertaining in 1999, when the first season of The West Wing hit the small screen, but these days, I expect more than that superficial shit. 
And yet, and yet, the show has a magnetic pull to it that drew me from episode to episode (certainly helped by the fact that AMC wisely limited itself to ten-episodes-per-season-runs) and that made me instantly switch to season 2. Tell you about that in two weeks.

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