Halting ‘Halt and Catch Fire’

The only salient reason that AMC could give in its decision to renew Halt and Catch Fire, a deeply flawed, little watched show, is affluence. “Halt and Catch Fire was No. 3 among affluent viewers age 18-49, trailing only The Good Wife and Mad Men.” Sites that do viewer comparisons note that the ratings were close to other shows that AMC had decided to cancel. Go here if you want numbers, but the overarching number is this: Halt and Catch Fire had 1.3 million viewers.

As part of that number, the 0.4 percent of the U.S. population who watch this show, I received news of the renewal decision with a mixture of excitement and sadness because, while there is something in it that I find compelling, it is not a “good show.” It isn’t even a “good bad show”, and I watch plenty of those.

Someone on Twitter asked me if he should watch Halt and Catch Fire, and that question is impossible to answer without probing this question: Why would someone want to watch Halt and Catch Fire? Why did I watch it? And, by extension, what makes Halt and Catch Fire No. 3 among affluent viewers?

The reasons that I can think of are an affinity for business cases, an interest in startups and innovation, and a nostalgia for early computing. But, ultimately, it fails in creating a compelling work narrative. It is too much a business case and not enough of a business fantasy.

I will take those in four parts. And, yes, there will be spoilers for Halt as well as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and a few others.

A. Halt and Do Business

Narrative, with all its allures and flaws, is a cornerstone of business education. Several business schools have some form of the case method that was established at Harvard Business School. HBS churns out 350 new cases a year, and a business school student reads approximately 500 cases in a two-year course.  (For those who want to know about the form, I will summarize in the comments.)

Even though it doesn’t respect the form, Halt and Catch Fire is best likened to a series of fictionalized business cases where each plot turn is a business-related question. From the beginning:

  • Forming a Team. Joe (our Business Leader) needs to create a team. Should he rely on the experienced engineers at IBM or new and unproven talent that is either directly out of school (Cameron) or in a stalled career (Gordon)? (Answer: New and unproven. This is the era of renegade coders and overlooked genius engineers.)
  • Pivoting a Company. How can Joe pivot the mission of an entire company (Cardiff Electric) to go from mainframes to personal computers? (Answer: Force them into a legal showdown with IBM.)
  • Finance and Control. How can Joe retain control, get financing, and ensure outside interests don’t seize control at a small valuation or that his main rival doesn’t stop hist team’s progress? (Answer: Seduction and prison, respectfully.)
  • How to Make a Business Deal. How can Joe get the best deal possible on important parts for his computers? (Answer: Use Gordon’s father-in-law’s connections.)
  • How to Build a Software Team. How can Cameron figure out a way to both fire her boss and determine which software engineers are the best for her time? (Answer: By applying Frederick Brooks’s Mythical Man Month to the game Adventure.)
  • How to Go-to-Market.  With no budget (and no marketing channels), how do you go-to-market at the industry’s leading conference? (Answer: Sell everything you own, do some gorilla shit, and dupe people.)

But, above all those cases, the penultimate episode of the season was the best episode/business case. Faced with an insurgent competitor (minor characters in the show had stolen the team’s design to make a faster computer) and clear customer preferences (speed, memory), the team is left with little options until Gordon strips the computer of Cameron’s innovative operating system and demonstrates the same functionality, but quicker. Cameron is stricken—the OS is what makes the machine truly innovative. But, it’s clear that the team has a greater likelihood to be successful if they go with Gordon’s setup. What is Joe to do? Does he go for Gordon’s market leading technology (a sustaining innovation) or does he go for Cameron’s revolutionary OS (a disruptive innovation)?

Answer: He goes with Gordon’s setup, makes the company millions, and regrets it by the final episode.

But, should he have gone with Cameron’s innovation instead? Honestly, it’s too difficult to say. But, don’t take my word for it. Take the word of a multi-millionaire, tech genius.

B. Halt and Start Up

Who were those affluent people watching Halt? Among them, was Marc Andreessen, one of the people who invented the web browser. You know, the Web. What you are reading right now. Yeah, he did that.

So, should they have gone with Gordon’s pragmatism or Cameron’s innovative user experience? Let’s ask Marc.

Really?

But, won’t that pose problems?

Marc foreshadowed the fall out at the end of the season after the third episode. And, while Marc believes the central question is unanswerable, noted startup CEO Chris Dixon went with the New York Times answer:

But was all this real? Like all good business cases, Halt and Catch Fire aims for verisimilitude, but did it achieve it? Again, Marc:

But, surely Marc can’t be the only one. What about someone like Brad Feld, someone who’s invested in companies like MakerBot and Fitbit and written five books on startups?

Those start-up luminaries who tweeted about it thought that the show was good enough to be real. It got the experience of doing something new right. Additionally, it also got the history right, but it used history like an inside joke. As I write this on a computer and you read this on a computer, does it even make sense to ask, “will personal computers be big after 1983?”

C. Halt in the ’80s

Halt and Catch Fire gets a lot of the history right (read the synopses on Popular Mechanics for those), and it appeals to those of use who remember a world before Andreeseen’s browser.

It’s for those of us whose first online experience was on a 2400 baud modem, and who still get nostalgic on the dial up sound.

It’s for those of us who remember the tactical sensation and auditory clicking of the IBM Model M keyboard.

It’s for those of us whose first computer had a cassette deck as opposed to a 5 ¼” disk drive and came with Basic.

But, even steeped in all this nostalgia, Halt and Catch Fire’s use of ’80s shorthand seems to be more of an inside joke that all of us are in on. While you look at the ’60s in Mad Men with mouth agape thinking, “wow, this is what it was like then?” you watch Halt and Catch Fire as though you are on the inside joke that only some of the characters don’t know about.

Will personal computers be big? Can any one topple IBM in the PC space? Can information travel across phone lines? Are any of these questions remotely interesting for a contemporary audience?

While the future of computers at Sterling Cooper Draper Price might be an interesting subplot, it’s at the heart of Halt, and that’s a problem. There’s only so many times the audience member can think, “wow, computers were (slow / heavy / limited) in the ’80s.” The joke has been stale since the third episode, but they keep coming back to it. The problem is that they have tried to make the computer revolution a bigger character or force than any of the principals, and that poses a dramatic problem. What one really wants to see is that glimmer of skill and outsized talent in a corrupt and corrupting system. That’s the sauce: television as work fantasy.

D. Learn How to Work by Watching Television

Besides issues with pacing that made it very difficult to watch, where Halt and Catch Fire broke down was with the distinct lack of a remarkable antihero. Joe was a difficult character to like in the way people like Don Draper or Tony Soprano. While Joe had the ambition of a Walter White, he lacked his technical skill. And, while Joe was supposedly an accomplished salesman, none of his pitches were at Draper-level. (And it had nothing to do with the actor. See Freddy Rumsen’s Accutron pitch in the final season opener of Mad Men.) In a business case sense, Joe was hardly an outsized Business Leader.

And, a good Business Leader is what every case needs, and bizarrely enough, it’s what one finds in every other example of a contemporary television hero / antihero. It’s that hallmark of a case—someone who conceivably could face a problem you might face but who has a special / fantastical way to get out of it.

In The Wire, McNulty deals with an overtly political job environment (just like you!), but he does his job well—even when it costs him. McNulty suffers, so you don’t have to.

In The Sopranos, Tony deals with co-workers and associates who constantly overstep their bounds (just like you!), and he deals with them in ways you wish you could. Tony kills people, so you don’t have to.

In Breaking Bad, Walter starts off with only his technical skill and his ambition (just like you!), but throughout the course of the series he makes a name for himself. The “Say My Name” open is the culmination of his power.

In Mad Men, Dick Whitman—a man with little experience or advantage (just like you!) recreates himself as one of the smoothest talking pitchmen in the history of pitching.

And, in the end, that’s what every one of these (better) television shows has that a business case series does not: not a work reality, but a work fantasy.  And, while watching Halt, there’s never a moment that you wanted what Joe, Cameron, or Gordon had. You only knew, like them, that this computer thing was going to be big, so maybe you should get on board. That’s what they did.

Photo Credit: Blake Tyers/AMC

Ben

Ben self-identifies as a Slytherin, so it makes sense that he is a business school graduate. He really liked the movie Margin Call, so that makes him SportsAlcohol.com's de facto business correspondent. By business correspondent, we mean the expert in movies and television about business (we don't care about the strength of the dollar or whatever).

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Bennett Morrison

    Tl;dr

  • Bennett Morrison

    For those unfamiliar with the genre of business cases, let me summarize their general structure (usually 8-15 pages) in a five-bullet list:

    The Opening. Our case usually begins in a serene setting. The Business Leader (BL) in repose thinking about recent Big Business Decisions (BBD) that was made. BL is usually sipping green tea or just back form a ride / walk / jog of some kind.

    The Company History. This is a 1-1.5 page history of the company—from it’s founding to present day. Anywhere from a 12-month to 150-year history–as long as it is no more than 2 pages because, really, what bearing does history have on our current situation?

    The Setup. This is where in 1-5 pages the business school student is told everything he/she needs to know about the industry—foreshadowing the case. Depending on the course, this can be anything: new competition, a merger, a divestiture, raising capital, falling stock prices, or a new hire comes to town. But, this is where things start happening, and the BL is presented with the challenge. Everything the narrative needs (competitors, colleagues,
    underlings) is in here. These 5 pages are what make most business types think they only need 5 pages to understand anything.

    The BBD. This is the inciting incident in our Freytag’s pyramid, when shit gets real. This is ostensibly why the case is being taught in the first place: You are being tasked with answering the BBD.

    The Exhibits. This is the part that, starting out, you forget to read. But, good students only read the exhibits because, most often, they are all you need.These are the facts. In the best cases, there are twice as many as you need, but these are the details that you hold on to when you want to understand what the hell is happening. Because, while the narrative might be nice, the facts are what usually matter in this case.

    For a fuller critique of the method, go here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ronaldyeaple/2012/07/09/is-the-mba-case-method-passe/

  • Jason Forman

    I was (one of the) person/people who asked you about this show on the twitter machine. I ended up watching it in bursts. Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-8, 9,10. I enjoyed it but I’m not sure I’m compelled to watch another season. Episode 9 was fantastic.

    Up Next- The AMC classic (cancelled series) Low Winter Sun

    • jesse

      If you watch Low Winter Sun and have anything cogent to say about it, I would be happy to run a one-year-anniversary piece about this lost classic [that I have never seen and never will seen and assume is terrible].

    • Bennett Morrison

      You were the person who I was thinking of one I wrote that. Episode 9 is one of the best things I will see on television this year.

  • Pingback: Why 'Halt and Catch Fire' Is More Than a Business Case()

  • Pingback: The SportsAlcohol Podcast: The Replacements and The Reunion Act()

  • Pingback: BEST TV OF 2014: OUR TOP TEN - SportsAlcohol.com()

  • Pingback: Another Season of Halt and Catch Fire—Burn to the Ground and Begin Again()