Halt and Catch Fire is almost certainly the most underrated drama series of the 2010s. Airing to small audiences on AMC, it completed its four season run by dint of being relatively cheap to make and to the critical kudos it picked up during its run, from 2014 to 2017. In the years since it went off the air, the show has picked up a lot more critical retrorespect but still hasn't quite permeated the audience consciousness even in the same way as, say, The Americans or Atlanta.
The show's relatively dull-sounding premise doesn't really help it. This is a period piece about the early (ish) days of the computer business, which doesn't really sound like the most exciting basis for an ongoing TV show. The cast is perhaps a bit more interesting. Lee Pace, hot off the press of playing Thranduil in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy and Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy and poised for a big Hollywood movie career, signed up to Halt and Catch Fire after working on those projects, a sign of his regard for the scripts. Mackenzie Davis was less well-known before working on the show, but it certainly helped her career develop, with roles in Blade Runner 2049, Terminator: Dark Fate and arguably Black Mirror's most popular episode, San Junipero, all following.
The first season of Halt and Catch Fire starts off feeling a bit more like Mad Men but in the 1980s with more computers and less advertising, with Pace's smooth advertising exec Joe MacMillan coming across like Don Draper with added bisexuality. The show rapidly moves away from that, instead leaning into more of a slightly offbeat tone that gets more pronounced and more interesting through the show's run, becoming a bit more of an 8-bit Mr. Robot. It never goes as full intense-weird as that show though, remaining grounded throughout its run. It's this tone of being a traditional drama but with one tone in the oddball, accessible but occasionally weird, that makes the show interesting.
The performances of the four leads make the show work. Joe is smooth, slicked back and confident, but masks a more troubled family background and issues with commitment. Pace finds additional layers of the character which make him more relatable although not always sympathetic: Joe is a seriously damaged human being and it's to both the writers and Pace's credit that they avoid slipping into cliche. Scoot McNairy provides an able foil in the role of Gordon, a more hands-on practical engineer and family man who lacks Joe's big picture vision as he is more of a details guy. Kerry Bishé provides excellent support as Gordon's wife Donna (the two re-teaming as a husband-and-wife couple from the movie Argo), whose character rapidly expands from that of supporting character to co-lead. The show flirts with traditional relationship drama when delving into their marriage but expertly finds new ways of exploring the oldest of relationship ideas in the show. The central quartet is rounded out by Mackenzie Davis's Cameron, a loose cannon genius programmer with commitment and addiction issues who at first might make the viewer wince due to being a walking bag of tropes, but rapidly becomes a far more interesting character thanks again to the writers and Davis finding extra depths in the role.
At just ten episodes, the first season moves relatively quickly and presents our protagonists with fresh challenges every week. The stakes feel kind of low overall - at no point in the series is anyone's life in danger, for example - but the financial implications for the company and the people who work there are ramped up and the show makes it clear that the livelihoods of hundreds of people are on the line.
Events come together and it feels like the ending might be a little too neat, probably a result of renewal not being seen as certain (or even likely, for such a niche premise). But fortunately Halt and Catch Fire did gets its later seasons, which number among some of the finest of the decade. This first season (****) is a slow burner but rewards the patient viewer. It is available to watch now on Amazon Prime in the UK and USA.