As promised I’ve finished watching Halt and Catch Fire now, and am happy to report that, as promised, it got better and better as our four main characters moved on from their first season efforts to make an IBM PC clone only better.
As Tom Armitage put it after he rewatched the show earlier this year:
It’s a funny show. It starts out… quite badly, wanting to tell one particular story, and the moment it starts swerving away from that, it becomes more interesting. That point isn’t the beginning of season 2, incidentally: it’s easy to hate on the messy first season, but rewatching it, it confirmed that it course-corrects fast and hard. Once Donna is brought up in the mix around S1E4 it starts showing hints of what it’ll be, and the last few episodes of season 1 – pretty much once Donna says “I’m coming with you,” and the gang drives to COMDEX, are it taking flight. The rewatch definitely confirmed you cannot pull the “Parks And Rec Manouevre” (“just start with S2”) with this show.
For my money, by far the biggest change in the show came a few episodes into season one, when Kerry Bishé’s Donna levelled up from being the supportive spouse of one of our lead characters1 to the tech-savvy heroine who came through and rebuilt Cameron’s backup after Joe had sabotaged it.2 A few episodes later Donna was much more involved in Gordon’s work, and by the time the team went to COMDEX we had a show firing on all cylinders. It was lovely to see how (as I’d hoped) by the end of the show Donna and Cameron were back in partnership.
Writing this up, I now realise that in a lot of ways Donna’s emergence as a main character is a sign of how much this show was at root good, old-fashioned competence porn. These four main characters, and also the people around them like Boz who stepped in to fight fires for them, were basically very capable in their fields and usually able to deliver on what they promised. The fun would come when they had to communicate with one another about the different directions their wider goals were leading them towards.
Especially from the second season, when the writers had learned to tone down the focus on Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan and his mysterious backstory, this left us focussing on the partnership between our two female leads: the problems they faced when dealing with vulture capitalists who saw two young female founders and refused to take them seriously; the fact that they were so dependent upon suppliers for bandwidth and computing power and lacked the financial muscle to get what they needed when they needed it; their different perspectives on how to get there and how to run a company where nominally they wanted to be open and democratic and yet Cameron wanted to stick to her vision of the company and hold on tight to every damned thing being done the way she thought it should be.
Over the four seasons they bounced off one another and went off in different directions, only to be brought together towards the end: partly by the way the IT business had changed, partly by changes in how the characters reacted to those changes and settled into their new roles, and partly by the death of one of our central foursome whose departure provided the impetus for a really solid wrap-up of the show’s story. At the end, I loved the way the show gave us Donna and Cameron recognising how well they worked together and moving forward from there.3
Given that in the USA this was the show that inherited the timeslot of Mad Men I suppose it always had big shoes to fill. The subject matter (especially in season 1, following a story about Joe hijacking an old-fashioned company to move it into a new field) didn’t offer audiences the sort of hit that Mad Men had of easy nostalgia, and for whatever reason it probably never had a chance even if the critics did eventually come to recognise Halt and Catch Fire as part of the age of Quality TV. For my money, it was a journey well worth taking. If the writers want to bring us a series about the adventures of Cameron and Donna in their next venture, or even of the Return of Joe MacMillan from academia then I’d definitely be up for that.
- Early on we learned that she was working for Texas Instruments as middle management and had been working with Gordon on his earlier, failed attempt to design and build a machine of his own. This was the point where we came to understand just how focussed and level-headed and just plain hyper-competent she really was when it came to technology. Prior to this we saw very little of Donna in her workplace, and her role was mostly writing reports to keep her boss up to speed on how their part of TI was keeping up. After this, Donna was increasingly sucked in to the world of Cardiff, then the work at Mutant, then finally making her way in venture capitalism and we got to see how capable she was. ↩
- First season Joe’s urge to trick his colleagues into falling in with his plans earned him a huge amount of distrust for the next three seasons, and at times it looked as if Evil Joe had burnt those bridges. Again, by the end of season 4 everyone had moved past that. ↩
- I’d spent the last few episodes dreading that they were going to end the show with Cameron deciding to have children, so full marks for their avoidance of that pat ending to the story. ↩
To my mind, the most interesting point in this account of the producers of The Blacklist are finishing off their mostly-in-the-can-already season of TV with a little help from animators) comes towards the end:
Did you want to channel the comic-book aesthetic specifically?
EISENDRATH: […] In live action, you would have been able to read more of the emotional wheel turning in her head. We didn’t necessarily think that animation would be able to access her inner thinking, so we added a chyron.
BOKENKAMP: We realized, “Oh, wait! That’s within the rule book.” Comics can do thought bubbles. That was sort of a light bulb moment for us. We realized that as we went along that we should take advantage of every comic book trope that we could think of, to help the viewer.
EISENDRATH: Maybe we should keep the thought bubbles when we go back to live action! [Laughs]
"We should take advantage of every comic book trope that we could think of, to help the viewer." Sounds so innocuous: chyrons signalling what the characters are thinking. What could possibly go wrong?1
Hopefully actors and screenwriters will join forces and reject the damn-fool idea out of hand.
- I get that the producer is kidding. That’s the sort of joke that risks getting into the wrong hands and turning into an unstoppable blight on our TV. Kill it with fire, now! ↩
I’ve been filling some gaps in my TV viewing with Halt and Catch Fire, a show where I’ve enjoyed season one but I kept reading commentary that suggested that the show really got good once we got to season two. As I type this 1 I’m four episodes into season two and having to fight the temptation to binge watch the remainder of the season rather than work from home today like I’m supposed to.
They weren’t kidding: the characters I enjoyed so much are so much more fun in their new situation: watching Cameron start down the path towards learning how not to rely on her being the visionary/genius programmer who will save the day but rather a proper manager promises to be great fun. I have very deliberately not looked ahead to find out how the plot develops in the remaining seasons – I’ll get there soon enough, and I’m enjoying the ride enough not to want to be derailed by spoilers if I can help it – but I can’t help but wonder whether by the close of season four Cameron will realise that she also had a hell of a lot to learn from her partner in Mutiny, Donna. 2
Everything I love about this show is encapsulated by the sequence in which Cameron and Donna talk tech at a dive bar and confront the bad guy while Gordon glams up and takes the kids for ice cream. Every TV – and computer industry – cliche subverted in one swoop, and without the showboating any other property on TV today would go for.
It’s a real shame that this show wasn’t a much bigger deal than it ended up being, but them’s the breaks when your show’s visibility is so dependent upon which distribution outlet handles your show. 3 When Halt and Catch Fire was new I missed it because a) I don’t think it made it to terrestrial TV or any of the digital services I had access to at the time, and b) in any case the portion of my brain that liked fictional TV shows about technology had already been captured by Silicon Valley, so who knows whether my mind could have coped with two such different pictures of how the tech business worked at the same time? Imagine if the time streams had merged and inserted Donna or Cameron in the room where a team brainstorming session by the guys from Pied Piper led to the calculation of the the Mean Jerk Time and the D2F Ratio AND the formulation of the Middle-Out method of data compression that formed the basis of several seasons of triumph and disaster for everyone in that room. Obviously Cameron would have been tempted to use her baseball bat on everyone in the room, but who knows, perhaps the two shows would have ended with a crossover where – after wacky adventures as Richard ended up having to help Cameron to bury Erlich Bachman’s body 4 – Cameron and Richard ended up as a couple and omigod now I really wish someone had made this happen!
Anyway, time for me to catch some sleep. Short message: Halt and Catch Fire started well and then got better. If you’re anything like me, you might like it. (Ignore this if this is old news to you.)
I wonder where Cameron stands on Tabs-versus-Spaces?
[Via MetaFilter Fanfare]
- In the early hours of Thursday morning, because I took a long nap through much of late Wednesday evening after watching Halt and Catch Fire season 2 episode 4 and don’t feel sleepy again yet. ↩
- Even in season one it seemed to me that Kerry Bishé was the MVP of the show’s core cast and so far season two is piling on further evidence of that exalted status with every passing episode. Look at Cameron screwing up when she didn’t realise that a disparaging offhand remark she’d made about Donna on their nascent social network had gone to all users, cueing up the scene when Donna came into the office and everyone but her was waiting for the catfight that didn’t come because Donna is an adult. She dealt with it without use of a baseball bat or a loud tantrum in front of their coworkers, because she’s the adult in the room. Five minutes later the two of them were working together in the new team photo, having let off steam and reduced the tension. ↩
- A lesson I suspect we’ll all get to learn again in the forthcoming era of every-damn-studio-insisting-on-viewers-paying-a-monthly-subscription-to-their-streaming-service. Twenty years from now when someone finally declares themselves the winners of that battle and starts in on trying to get the rights to all sorts of shows that were scattered among the assets of how many different bundles of intellectual property rights, how many masterpieces will be waiting to be rediscovered by (or, very possibly, remade for) the mass audience they missed out on when they were new? ↩
- No way can they both survive in the same timestream, so I’m afraid he has to go. ↩
Vulture asked various screenwriters/show runners to write part of a Coronavirus Episode for their characters.
Michael Schur knows exactly who should be in charge right now…
First of all, Leslie would’ve known the CDC protocols for social distancing already, and they would’ve been instituted within 24 hours of the first reports of the coronavirus in America. […]
Ron would be thrilled because now there’s a reason for him to be alone with no one bothering him. But he’d worry about Leslie.
A few thoughts on some of the others:
- Of course Boyd Crowder would be working on a plan to take advantage of the lockdown to pull off a crime. And of course Raylan Givens would know to swing by to remind Boyd of the risk he’d be running if he tried such a thing.
- I was a bit distracted by the sight of that computer Frasier Crane was depicted as using. Note to readers under the age of 25: that’s what we used to call a laptop back before Jony Ive got control of Apple’s laptop designs. I was torn between admiration for how much less space a modern computer takes up (and how much more capacity it has compared to that thing) and envy for all those ports and sockets that just won’t be found on an equivalent modern laptop, let alone an iPad.
- I fear Coach Taylor’s brand of sincere, highly persuasive oratory only works when you have the scriptwriter on your side, but we can dream. ↩
In the end, The Good Place ended on a very satisfying final note. (Lovely moment towards the end when now-human Michael ended up getting guitar lessons from his real-life wife Mary Steenburgen. Even better moment when wannabe architect Tahani Al-Jamil earned praise for her construction skills from Nick Offerman.)
They stuck the landing. Applause (between the tears as we said goodbye to everyone one last time) is due to all involved.
“You’re going to see things that happened in real life, but happen faster and in slightly different ways,” Moore promised. “So things like the coming of the personal computer, internet, variations on communications and email and cell phones and all that. You’ll see it in a more rapid advance. And the actual models and prototypes and pieces of technology that are being used are not exactly what happened in real history… you’ll see variations on it. We went back and looked at some of the early prototyping and different branches that some of the technology could have gone off in the ’70s and ’80s, and chose to go down some of those paths. So, you’ll have a different spin and a different feel to it. The further the show goes now, the more science-fiction it’s going to become. We’re getting more aggressively into areas that never happened.”
Sounds promising. 1
- I’m slightly disappointed that they’re sticking to Reagan ending up in the White House and being up for even more of an arms race than he was in our timeline, but I can’t deny that all the signs are that in the timeline they’re showing us politics hasn’t changed all that much so that’s not a completely unexpected turn of events. ↩
So, For All Mankind closed with a slightly loner-than-usual season finale that perhaps signalled that when next we see these characters they might have moved beyond the Apollo era.
Be sure to stick around for the post-credit scene for the first season finale. I really hope that signals another jump forward in the timeline, because for all that I’ve enjoyed the course of the show’s first season I’d also been mildly worried that we were going to spend forever on the alternate Apollo programme and I really want to see this show go further along the alternate timeline than that. (I did joke about Ron Moore ending the show with an appearance from a Cylon, but one commenter over at MeFi Fanfare last week posited that the show will end with the discovery of a black monolith on the lunar surface and morph into a 2001: A Space Odyssey prequel Works for me.)
The finale revealed that the first commander of the first US base on the moon wasn’t the cold-blooded murderer we’d thought he might be last week, but I do wonder whether some time in season two someone will discover evidence that the base had been visited by the enemy and our putative hero will find himself having to own up to what went down in the preparation for his rescue mission for his rescuers. Will NASA file it under “Who cares? It all worked out in the end (except for Deke.)” or will there be a scandal when it turns out that our hero Ed (assuming he remains in the programme and ends up, say, as head of the Astronaut Office some day) realises that he recognises Mikhail, his newly-appointed opposite number on the Soviet side?
I’d still love to know whether Ron Moore’s plan is to spend seven seasons exploring how a different timeline plays out in the lifetimes of the current characters, or whether they’re going to throw in enough time jumps that we get a picture of the ramifications of a different start to the space race. Given that we’ve spent significant time following the story of Aleida, our immigrant space enthusiast in the first season, I can’t help but wonder whether her character 1 will pop up again before long, possibly after a couple more time jumps to give her time to have a reason to be in the story again. I mean, she might just show up years later as a member of the public watching what’s going on in the space programme rather than working in it, or it might be that her story was mostly a way to reveal her father’s story and how the FBI’s efforts to enhance security were mostly pointless, but I have a feeling she’s destined to be more involved than that.
I have a feeling, just given the economics of how TV casting works and the notion that it’s risky to press the reset button and demand that audiences get used to a largely new cast in a different scenario in the next season, that they’ll stick with rolling out the story covering the near future. A show that sticks with the 1970s generation of astronauts could well be every bit as much fun as the first season has been for folks like me2 but my preference would be for a show that ends up a few hundred years hence, one that reveals that because the Russians and the Americans were working in parallel on the Moon3 they ended up customarily working together and ended up extending that practice as they fanned out into the depths of the solar system. Heretical thought: might it have made very little difference, what with all the major players being basically extensions of the military powers’ armed forces and thus somewhat disinclined to cooperate with their potential enemies?
- Probably recast, so we can see her all grown up, having earned her place in the space programme on the basis of her mathematical expertise post-college. She can be in her mid-thirties, ideally having a nice reunion with soon-to-retire veteran NASA Flight Director Margo Madison when Aleida arrives to start her new job. That whole illegal immigrant thing would be a problem security-check-wise, you’d imagine, but who said Aleida had to work for NASA? Perhaps she ends up emigrating to Europe in her early twenties and finds herself working on the EU’s fledgeling human space programme and gets seconded to NASA as part of the EU’s attempt to catch up. ↩
- The sort of people who recognise which characters in the show were real people and which were folks the show’s writers made up, and which technologies were in the pipeline when the Apollo programme was wound down after the key aim of beating the Soviet Union to the moon was achieved. You know, geeks. ↩
- And the Chinese, and the EU, and the Indians, and the Saudis, in time. It’s science fiction: who can say what’ll come to pass? ↩
Well, I’ve dipped a toe into Apple’s vision of the future of TV by watching the first two episodes of For All Mankind, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far:
[A…] captivating “what if” take on history from Golden Globe nominee and Emmy Award winner, Ronald D. Moore. Told through the lives of astronauts, engineers and their families, “For All Mankind” imagines a world in which the global space race never ended and the space program remained the cultural centerpiece of America’s hopes and dreams.
The things is, I’m just two episodes in and some of the fun changes to our timeline’s history – most obviously the much earlier advent of women in the space programme – are still to come. But so far, the show is giving us a chance to get to know some of our characters and it looks as if we’re going to learn about this timeline through how those characters are affected by the various changes, which is definitely the best way to go about this.
The big question is, where does this story end? Do we find ourselves pushing out into space much faster in the last half of the 20th century and beyond because a stronger Soviet presence means that the US can always justify throwing money at NASA and if so where does the story stop? Are we going to move beyond this initial cast of astronauts who were contemporaries of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and if so, when?
Rumour has it that Ronald D Moore and his colleagues have mapped out seven seasons of this show: as with all TV, how much of that we get to see will presumably depend upon the show’s success against whatever metrics Apple have decided to apply to it. Seven seasons could take us to the point where our characters have aged to the point where they’re heading off to Mars to join the first colonisation effort, or perhaps the last episode will see the grandchildren of our characters inventing the first Cylon or something.
Farewell to _The OA_, the Netflix series created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij and starring Marling, which lasted two ambitious, lopsided seasons. It told a story of alternate realities to which characters could travel by working through the rejected sections of a community mime class.
I had a horrible feeling that they were going to have a hell of a job moving on from the none-more-meta second season finale,1 but I’d have loved to see them try.
Throughout the miniseries, there are scenes where astronauts, engineers, NASA administrators, politicians, and more list all the challenges facing Kennedy’s promise to put American boots on the lunar surface before 1970. In a great scene in the debut episode – titled, plainly, “Can We Do This?” – flight director Chris Kraft (Stephen Root) lists all the tasks NASA must master before even considering a moon mission. And as happens throughout the series, Kraft puts complicated issues into plain English. Describing the process of spacecraft rendezvous, he says: “Come over to my house. You stand in the backyard, I stand in the front yard. You throw a tennis ball over the roof, I’ll try to hit it with a rock as it comes sailing over. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
If I remember correctly the show was broadcast in the UK on Channel 4 on Saturday mornings, and it was must-watch TV for me. There’s no word of it showing up on UK terrestrial TV this time round, but assuming that doesn’t change any time soon I’m just going to have to pay £9.99 for the HD version because it was a great, great story very well told.1
[Edited to add: Part of what made the show work so well is that it adopted a strategy of changing the focus of the story being told each week. One episode was about the experience of the astronauts’ wives and how they felt being in the spotlight while their husbands were on missions, and another dealt with the requirement that those astronauts whose missions might involve time on the lunar surface needing to learn enough geology to be useful field workers when they found themselves standing on the moon and required to determine where they could take the next rock sample. Another one was focussed on an individual astronaut, Alan Shepard, needing to find a way back into space in the face of his inner-ear disorder. Not entirely a different cast every episode, but very different angles on the story from episode to episode and a cast of folks who spent the next couple of decades being familiar faces in the age of Prestige TV.]
[Via Six Colors]