The Thing That Gets You To The Thing
January 26, 2021 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Missed out on Halt and Catch Fire, the critically-acclaimed but slightly under-watched TV drama about people working in tech in the 80s-90s, or just hankering for a rewatch? Ashley Blewer has created a syllabus for watch clubs to discuss the show and technology history! (Previously, FanFare)

Halt and Catch Fire is available on Netflix in the US and Canada.

Bonus story by Christopher Cantwell, taking place between Season 1 Ep 7 and Ep 8!
posted by adrianhon (24 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, good, this will encourage me to pick it back up. I watched the first two episodes, mostly because of Mackenzie Davis and partially because I hadn't seen Lee Pace in a human role (just as Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel), and loved the early eighties ambiance, but I got distracted by something else and, well, you know.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:44 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

H&CF is great, the actors are all great, watching Mackenzie Davis doing actual work on a C64 is great and maybe unbelievable but also great. The end of the series kinda breaks down somewhat but manages to pull off all those early web technical touchstones (with a defunct mainframe still in the basement) while being messier overall and still delivering a few real emotional punches. Loved this show. And this reading list to go with it is very cool.
posted by GuyZero at 10:52 AM on January 26

I miss this show, deeply. Lee Pace is the reason i started the show, fell in love with him in Pushing Daisies. This is a labor of love, I can tell. Wonderful of her to put this together.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:13 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

For new watchers: there are good things in season 1, but the show makes a huge leap with season 2. Characters and relationships come into focus. Then it’s great to the finish.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 11:14 AM on January 26 [7 favorites]

I need to pick this show up. I stopped after season 2 but was loving it.

The Fall Lee Pace is best Lee Pace.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:28 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Oh, I kinda wish I had Netflix now, not even so much for the show itself, but because I really like looking at shows or movies in the way the syllabus appears to outline. It's a great way to get a lot more out of what you watch as it expands the fiction into a more contextual history. In this case, the show is set in the past, so the some there will undoubtedly be more exploration of the contrast between the real them and the fictional one that might draw out what the show is doing a bit better and give some history, while on other occasions the same method might be used on works from the past to provide deeper appreciation through parallels or analogies to present circumstance.

It's something I've been trying to do myself, in a much more limited way, for some movies from the early part of the last century since a lot of the events and ideas that informed the movies are now largely forgotten for being many decades past. (Plus it's fun to dig into online newspapers archives and the like.)
posted by gusottertrout at 11:35 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Yeah, agreed on the S1 caveats.

I started watching it when it showed up on Netflix, and was only compelled to keep watching because the soundtrack was excellent and it was terrible in ways that I found consistently surprising and delightful. Though the cast, to its credit, was always good (though Lee Pace's performance could be VERY large, at times).

Then, at some point in the last couple of episodes of S1, it just turns on a dime and becomes a very good show. And then in the second season, Donna and Cameron are positioned as the show's protagonists ahead of Gordon and Joe, and it's off to the races.

If you're even slightly interested in the early days of the tech industry/internet, or wish there were more stories in which the female protagonists are allowed to express prodigious talent and intelligence, you shouldn't pass it up.
posted by incomple at 11:39 AM on January 26 [1 favorite]

The biggest issue with season 1 is that AMC wanted the show to be Dramatic and so there's a bunch of stuff that simply does not make any sense except it exists to be Dramatic and once they get over that and just make the show that HaCF needs to be it becomes incredibly good.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:46 AM on January 26 [4 favorites]

I tried to be into this show when it was first playing.
It felt like it was heading towards melodrama for the sake of melodrama, but it sounds like maybe it turned away from that and got good?

I really enjoyed the nostalgia of the sets and costuming. Also being reminded of a time when computers were not ubiquitously everywhere.
posted by madajb at 12:10 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]

Started and stoppped due to Lee Pace's character Joe MacMillan. I mean he's a great actor and plays the role well, but that guy is too much of an asshole that looks like too many assholes I've seen/dealt with in my life to keep watching, just couldn't stand it.
posted by WaterAndPixels at 12:18 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

I started rewatching it a few months ago to see if season 1 was actually bad (comparatively, that is) or if it's just that nobody knew what season 1 was about until it was over. When season 2 starts you know the context of the first season and you can enjoy the rest of the series more, but my question was whether the clues were there in the first season and just not noticed by all the people rooting for those characters, like me.

Personal judgment: I have no idea how I missed the signs of where things were going, because they're all over season 1. In fact, the director of photography should have dialed back. My wife hadn't watched it with me the first time through, but since I thought it was worth rewatching she watched with me. She liked the acting but couldn't handle the stress of it and told me I could finish without her.
posted by fedward at 12:30 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

I can't remember whether it was Netflix or Prime but the description on this show here in the UK was that it was about the rise of PC culture, which raised expectations for me that were not met by it being about IT.
posted by biffa at 1:11 PM on January 26

There's a lot of interesting stuff in that syllabus, but not including "Lessons from Habitat" seems like kind of a big omission.
posted by spudsilo at 1:18 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

I am a friend of Blewer's and I am in this syllabus (Blewer recommends a fanvid I made) so I am biased but ISN'T THIS AN AMAZING THING?!?!?!

I have also now learned the word "helminthiasis".

I presume that the shift in emphasis from Season 1 to the later seasons is entirely deliberate by the showmakers, because the switch from S1 to the subsequent seasons is kind of like the bait-and-switch the industry as a whole offers new entrants. You thought this was a show/industry about quickly coding cool things real hard, but it's really about people of all genders, relationships, money, world-epochal trends, legacies -- and if you ignore relationships, things happening in your organization, economics, trends in the larger world, your own personal limits, and so on, then you might write real cool code but it will never ship and affect anyone.

So many office/work shows are basically about people who do the same jobs for a super long time. This show reflects the reality of how you run into the same people over and over in different companies and jobs and configurations, teammate, boss, investor, competitor, family, conference co-panellist, and you bring your past to it but you can also grow. It's so hopeful, really, about how time can leach the poison out of the betrayals, about the healing power of making stuff together, about learning from our mistakes. And so it feels really fitting that Blewer has made this syllabus that curates and honors works by so many of our past makers and critics as well as contemporary thinkers.

The fourth season felt most familiar to me, not just because of the time period, but because the core original characters are middle-aged or older, and I'm middle-aged now, and the questions they're facing are like the hypothetical at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some other shows (like Arrested Development and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin are about how your karass is also your crab bucket. This show does not do that, in the end.

adrianhon: BONUS STORY?! I am on it like a bonnet!

spudsilo: In which class number would you put that reading, and what would you take out to make room for it?
posted by brainwane at 2:11 PM on January 26 [7 favorites]

I'm glad people are saying that S1 wasn't great, as I tried to get into it and was all nahhh. I couldn't find anyone to like.
posted by scruss at 2:38 PM on January 26

brainwane: That's awesome!

I really started getting into the show from S1 ep 5 or 6. I'd already steeled myself for the possibility that the entire first ten episodes would be awful, but to be honest the first few weren't that bad and by the time you hit the excitement of eps 8-10, shit is locked in.

Seasons 2 and 4 were probably my favourites. Season 2 because it was great to see Donna and Cameron take the front seat for a while, and due to one memorable scene where Bosworth, in full aw-shucks sales patter, explains just why belonging to a BBS is so important to a young person. I couldn't get over just how perfectly he put it.

Season 4, covering the early days of the web, reminded me what felt so special about those times. The internet seems like such a source of misery these days and while it was far from perfect in the 90s, the sense of connection and creation and possibility was like nothing I've seen since.

It's not really the tech that I'm so impressed by in HACF though – it's just how chillingly accurate it gets the experience of starting and running a struggling tech business is. I've done it myself a couple of times now, I've seen all the peaks and valleys, I've had the board meeting bust-ups, I've had to lay people off and I've seen so much money fall into our bank account I can barely believe my eyes, and I don't think a TV show has ever expressed what that feels like better than this one.
posted by adrianhon at 2:57 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]

Based on the above, would it make sense to start with Season 2 and read a synopsis of S1 instead?
I have a low tolerance for "suffer through X episodes, *then* it gets good", so that's kept me off the show despite the topic being of interest to me. (I figure any show has 2 episodes to hook me, since I know pilots can be off/weird, and then 1 'bad episode' of grace if it's earned it)
posted by CrystalDave at 8:21 PM on January 26

Oh, I remember why I didn't make it through Season 1!

I couldn't imagine anyone letting someone talk to them like Joe MacMillan talks to them.
You get that close to someone's face in '80s Texas, I'm pretty sure you'd get smacked.

Loving that LTD Country Squire though.
posted by madajb at 12:51 AM on January 27

CrystalDave: It really depends on your tolerance! There was enough good stuff in S1 to outweigh the bad for me, so I'm glad I watched it. But perhaps you could read the synopses for the first few eps?
posted by adrianhon at 1:46 AM on January 27

A few years ago I was skimming some comments (on MetaFilter, I think) and saw some people had success watching the first episode and then skipping to the Season 1 episode #9, "Up Helly Aa", and going on from there, to avoid the worst of the annoying stuff in Season 1 while still keeping up on the important bits of the arc. Now that I've seen the whole thing, I would also add "Close to the Metal", episode #4, because that ends up being fairly core to a relationship that turns out to be key to the show in seasons 2-4.
posted by brainwane at 2:32 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

would it make sense to start with Season 2 and read a synopsis of S1 instead?

This is a spoiler for a years-old show, so continue at your (mild) peril: The starting seed of S2 is the fact that the computer they finally managed to build by the end of S1 hits the market too late to make a difference, so S2 starts in the aftermath of that and picks up with the pivot. S2 is a much richer story because the show becomes about how you can succeed at the thing you're trying to do, only to find out the thing you're trying to do isn't enough. And I think that arc was coded into S1 as well, but I was one of a lot of people who didn't see it coming. Turns out the show was the myth of Icarus all along.

S1 establishes characters and relationships that make the later seasons richer. There aren't that many episodes in a season and the acting is always good, so if nothing else you'll have a better appreciation for individual character arcs (like Donna and John Bosworth) but you will have to put up with more Joe MacMillan than seems right on balance. In S1 they were clearly under some pressure to have a charming pathological liar as the lead (cf. Mad Men) but the show is undeniably better when it makes room for the other characters. (That said, if you're skipping around, S1E3 is a pretty good showcase of what Lee Pace can do in that sort of role, and that gets you some good Bosworth and a great guest appearance by Jean Smart).
posted by fedward at 7:35 AM on January 27 [1 favorite]

>> "spudsilo: In which class number would you put that reading, and what would you take out to make room for it?"

brainwane: I'd probably put this into the reading list for class 6. Habitat was contemporary to the era depicted in Season 2, and I believe the direct visual inspiration for the Community product as depicted in the show. I'm not sure why it would be necessary to remove anything from the reading lists to make this fit, but if pressed, there are two articles on the history of The Well. I'd probably remove one of them - likely the Wired article.

This is an aside, but The Well was always kind of an elite place, and an outlier. Dare I say it, the MetaFilter of it's day. What was happening on services like Quantumlink, which hosted Habitat, was more representative of what the online experience was like for the average owner of a C-64 equipped with a 300 baud modem in the late 80's.

I think the lessons drawn from the Habitat experiment have many parallels with story lines and themes in H&CF. That some users can and will go to extraordinary lengths to game the system. That software will always push the limits of bandwidth. That object orientation would have important implications for scalability of virtual worlds. That the technology platform was really secondary to the interaction between people that it enabled. That the distinction between the online reality and the 'real world' reality would blur. That cyberspace wasn't a morality free-zone. That any capacity for mock harm and violence in a virtual space would eventually have real world consequences. I think the conclusions drawn at the close of the paper foreshadow the long arc of a character like Joe, and where he eventually ends up at the conclusion of the series.
posted by spudsilo at 8:55 AM on January 27

So, I've started watching in earnest and have gotten to the beginning of S2, and am having fun--I guess that I can see the shift that people are talking about at the end of S1, but I still found a lot of S1 compelling, although a certain amount of that has to do with successive revelations about how badly broken, and in what ways, Joe is. You think that you've found out how and why he's fucked up, and then the next ep has something even worse, like a slo-mo car crash.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:27 AM on February 22

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