“Halt and Catch Fire,” which officially returns on AMC on Tuesday (after the season three premiere aired Sunday night alongside “Fear the Walking Dead”), is both a retro pleasure and a forward-looking gem.
TV has always had an affinity for period dramas, but they have typically been set in eras that seem very safely rooted in the past. Even as we drink in the elaborate fashions and snazzy hats, we can pride ourselves on not really being like that anymore. There’s often something of a remove between us and throwback characters, as if they’re reality-show contestants that we’re observing from our more enlightened perch. We think we know better than they do, but a devoted subset of us still like watching their dinner parties, their turbulent coach rides and their dramatic balls.
Of course, these programs are a varied lot — you’d never confuse “The Knick” with “Call the Midwife” — but corsets and country houses seem to be falling out of fashion these days. Period pieces now spring from eras that are far more recent than the time frame of “Downton Abbey.”
“Halt,” which premiered in 2014, was actually in the vanguard of a wave of comedies and dramas that began to bring the recent past into tighter focus. Three years ago, there weren’t all that many programs set in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ’90s, but now there’s a flood of them.
“The Americans,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “Vinyl,” “Confirmation,” “The Goldbergs,” “Narcos,” “The Get Down,” season two of “Fargo” and of course “Stranger Things” are all part of a notable group of shows that partly draw on nostalgia for the era before cell phones and the war on terror. (If someone from “Halt” had gotten into the espionage game, there could have been a crossover among that drama, “Deutschland 83” and “The Americans,” because at one point, all three had their characters engaging in shenanigans in 1983.)
Not only does this post-Watergate, pre-Sept. 11 era give writers more storytelling options — take away smartphones and the Internet, and suspense is easier to create — it allows TV creators to explore mindsets, attitudes and social problems that are still intensely relevant. The recent past isn’t a mirror, but a prism.
“Halt” picks up its third season in 1986, a few months after the gang from the tech company Mutiny made the trip from Texas to San Francisco. And like many of the shows mentioned above, “Halt” may be set in the past, but in some ways, it actually points the way to the TV’s future.
There are many things to love about “Halt” — it has a great soundtrack littered with some of the best pop songs of the era, and unlike so many ambitious dramas these days, each episode clocks in at 43 minutes. I could hug “Halt” for not being awkwardly crammed with indulgent digressions, for not revolving around murder and other grim things, and for having episodes of reasonable length that arrive complete with beginnings, middles and endings.
Much of its template is drawn from the solid outline that cable TV came up with during the early to mid-aughts: The best dramas and even many of the pretty good shows were character-driven, semi-serialized, comfortable with ambiguity and aesthetically distinguished. Even as many recent hourlong programs wander away from that formula — sometimes with impressive results but more often, not so much — “Halt” kept the faith, with increasingly rewarding results.
But the AMC drama didn’t get really exciting until it broke free from the expectation that meaty TV dramas had to be about tortured dudes. A charismatic anti-hero, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) is still in the mix, but he’s not the core focus of “Halt.” Two ambitious women are, and what’s more, these women are running a tech company. This is not exactly a worn-out premise on the TV scene, and it’s one reason to go back and watch the frisky (if occasionally uneven) first two seasons of “Halt,” which are on Netflix.
Back when it first arrived, I rolled my eyes a bit at “Halt,” given how Donna Clark (Kerry Bishe) was initially written as a naysaying cable wife. But over the course of the show’s first two seasons, “Halt” gained confidence and even swagger as its writers realized that it was much more entertaining and fresh when it focused on the aspirations of the business-savvy Donna and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), a mercurial genius programmer.
Of course, there are some nostalgic elements in “Halt” (the whirs and beeps of an old-school modem; the unrivaled wrongness of high-waisted stone-washed jeans). But like “Stranger Things” and “People v. O.J.,” it’s not just drafting off “remember when” moments. It has something to say about the pleasures of creativity, and the stress headaches and endorphin rushes that come from trying to commercializing what was, at one point, a pure and exciting idea.
Even if you don’t care about the Bay Area tech scene of the ‘80s — which is actually a smart place to set a drama about creative misfits — there’s something winning about the show’s devotion to the idea that, despite all the turmoil that comes from running an upstart endeavor, being part of a team that makes something cool and allows people to share their interests can be a lot of fun. “Halt’s” central irony, which doesn’t get old thanks to its compassionate approach to its core characters, is that Mutiny created a site that allows strangers to connect, but most of its characters find it difficult to sustain long-term relationships with those they’re allegedly close to.
“Halt” acknowledges the sexism of the time that matter-of-factly, and it also doesn’t ignore the casual homophobia. Lee Pace is capable of ferocious intensity even when silent, and when his bisexual character hears another man make light of the AIDS epidemic, I half expected lasers to shoot out of Joe’s eyes. All the characters in “Halt” are outsiders, even Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who is hiding symptoms of degenerative brain damage from most of the people around him.
In episodes that alternate percolating energy with quiet ruminations on loyalty, leadership and the ways in which people lie to themselves and others, the satisfying third season builds up an admirable head of steam and gives the core cast (including the wonderful and previously under-used Toby Huss) and guest star Annabeth Gish smart material to work with. Mutiny continues to grow, but as is the case on “Silicon Valley,” every fork in the road could lead to disaster and nobody’s all that friendly to the new kids. “In Texas, they stab you in the front,” complains John Bosworth (Huss), who adapts to the new culture but remains distrustful of it, for all his good ol’ boy bonhomie.
There’s an iconic moment in “Mad Men” when, after a business meeting turns into a sexual harassment marathon, Peggy and Joan get in an elevator, and Joan says, “I want to burn this place to the ground.” What if, a few decades later, Joan and Peggy’s daughters decided to stop short of arson but followed their dreams and created their own entrepreneurial utopia? Donna and Cameron’s company is, after all, called Mutiny, and it continually seesaws between Cam’s anarchic tendencies and Donna’s more practical rationality.
For them, there’s no real separation of work life and home life — Cam is bunking with the Clark family — which just adds to the hothouse atmosphere. Emotions are part of almost every business transaction, and monetary considerations affect almost every relationship. It’s a combustible mix, but “Halt” never veers into cartoonish or overwrought territory, which can’t be said for some of its cable and streaming competitors.
Joe likes to think he’s above petty concerns — this season, the bearded character is even more clearly a riff on Steve Jobs at his most manipulative — but he remains drawn to the Mutiny crew, especially Cameron and Gordon. They have a much more cynical take on Joe than most, even as he appears on magazine covers and wins over much of the Valley with his Zen-master mind games.
Joe presents himself as cool and cerebral, but Pace makes his chilly grandiosity (“I am the product”) extremely layered and ferociously watchable. Even for Joe, unruly impulses keep on creating obstacles and challenges — which may be the way he likes things. Is it Cameron’s success or Gordon’s obsession that adds fuel to Joe’s fire this season? It’s unclear — in a good way.
Whatever it is that drives him, something has burrowed into Joe’s psyche like malware, and he can’t quite eradicate it completely. And here we are, three decades later and connected twenty-four hours a day, still trying to figure out if the presence of chaos in our lives is a feature or a bug.