AMC’s 1980s technology drama “Halt and Catch Fire” returns Tuesday for a third season with yet another system upgrade that builds on some of Season 2’s notable improvements. The show’s bugs and glitches also persist, but, if nothing else, “Halt and Catch Fire” has become an above-average specimen of “slow television,” should you want such a thing in your life.
When it premiered in 2014, “Halt and Catch Fire” was set in Texas in 1983, where the race to deliver an affordable, mass-market PC had an all-consuming effect on a gifted but cynical engineer, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and a driven but duplicitous businessman, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace).
In both movement and structure, it was clear that someone at AMC had hoped fans of the soon-ending “Mad Men” (the undisputed king of slow TV), would warm up to the nostalgic, dial-up pace of nascent computer tech, but it wasn’t to be. “Halt and Catch Fire,” created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, groped around in search of the right mix between portent and pretentiousness, while Pace overshot his take on an edgy, dangerous, devilish character, landing squarely in the realm of the annoying. (McNairy, on the other hand, has always been fun to watch as a sad sack, even when the material flailed.)
Whether or not it was their master plan, Cantwell and Rogers shifted focus in Season 2 to their much more promising female characters – Kerry Bishé as Donna Clark, an engineer who’d built an earlier (and ultimately doomed) PC with her husband, Gordon; and Mackenzie Davis as Cameron Howe, a rebellious yet visionary coder with a few personal problems. While the men of “Halt and Catch Fire” tore each other apart (and the show flashed forward to 1985), Donna and Cameron started an online gaming company called Mutiny.
On their success (and the strength of their characters’ story lines), “Halt and Catch Fire” survives – and arguably thrives – in Season 3. It’s now 1986 and Mutiny has relocated to San Francisco, where Donna and Cameron are trying to persuade Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists (including a new character, played by “The Bridge’s” Annabeth Gish) to invest in Mutiny as a potential online marketplace. The ideas the women brainstorm together somewhat thrillingly hint at the age of Internet commerce to come: They spitball primordial notions of eBay and PayPal, and endure the heartbreak of having their best concepts slip through their fingers.
Meanwhile, the show still struggles with the Joe MacMillan character, who now preens about in baggy linen suits as a wisdom-spouting tech guru, fresh from his morning surf, still hungry to land on a billion-dollar idea and still a threat to Donna, Cameron and Gordon’s sense of security. “I know you’ve got this whole humble Zen-master thing going for you, but come on,” Cameron tells Joe during a chance encounter. “I’m not buying it.”
I still don’t entirely buy it either, nor do I consider “Halt and Catch Fire” an easy sell to viewers who have plenty else to watch. There are even better ways to get an ’80s fix, starting with Netflix’s “Stranger Things”; aside from the occasional inspired hairstyle and music cue, “Halt and Catch Fire’s” sense of period detail has never seemed adequately obsessive.
Yet I also find that the show has smoothed out enough kinks to become compelling on its own terms, which is often the case with slower shows. If a viewer (or a network) has enough time and patience, some ideas eventually turn a profit.
“Halt and Catch Fire” (one hour) returns Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.