“Halt and Catch Fire” certainly didn’t live up to the latter part of its name, which made AMC’s decision to renew it somewhat puzzling. Bearing the weight of unflattering comparisons to “Mad Men,” this period drama returns looking very different from the show that originally premiered, with the setting and relationships having changed dramatically. That makes the series reasonably watchable, but the characters still produce barely enough sparks to keep the storyline from fizzling out. Simply put, when “Halt’s” finale comes, likely sooner than later, don’t expect parades or fireworks.
Set in the burgeoning world of computers during the early 1980s, the series has essentially shuffled the deck. Beginning in 1985, more than a year after the first season’s conclusion, the main thrust now involves a nascent online gaming enterprise, being run by tech wiz Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and the more business-minded Donna (Kerry Bishe), whose husband, engineer Gordon (Scoot McNairy), is going not-so-quietly crazy watching the kids at home.
Meanwhile, slick salesman Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who presided over their shared adventure into personal computing, has moved on to new if not necessarily greener pastures, with plans to marry Sara (Aleksa Palladino). That brings him into contact with her imperious father (James Cromwell, welcome but underutilized), who wants his future son-in-law to prove himself by getting into the family’s oil business, while Joe is still obsessed with the looming future in tech, and scheming to find ways to get there.
Created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, the series certainly revisits a fascinating and enormously influential period, given the role technology has come to play in our lives in such a relatively short span of time. The problem is that “Halt” exhibits more savvy about the tech than the characters, while getting caught up in minutia that feels as narrow and chilly as the mediated interactions in a chat room. Nor does it help that the series is so grave and short on fun, especially when HBO’s “Silicon Valley” covers some of the same high-tech start-up territory in a much more entertaining fashion, albeit in the present day.
Four episodes in, the writers have taken steps to reconnect the key characters, but it’s a too-slow update of the software on a concept that came back with a relatively shallow pool of goodwill and critical buzz. In some respects, though, the “Halt and Catch Fire” experience is highly illustrative and a tad ironic, since the casting (principally Pace) and concept merited enthusiasm, only to discover that the plans that looked so good on the drawing board don’t always come together once you get around to actually building them.