'Halt and Catch Fire' Was an Impossible Show
Halt and Catch Fire reaches the end of its four-season run this Saturday as it airs the series finale, always a sad moment for fans of a given show. But instead of feeling sad at the loss, I am happy for the four seasons we got to see.
That’s because Halt and Catch Fire is a show whose very existence feels impossible, considering how many hurdles it has overcome in the course of its existence. And while a million different things have to go just right for any show to make it on the air, this one had a few extra obstacles, like:
It was created by two writers (Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers) who had never sold a show before, or even been on a television writing staff. While it is true that relatively new writers do, on occasion, sell pilots, the risk-averse nature of the industry means it’s incredibly rare that they get to film the pilot, let alone get to series.
Just to add a little more to the tale of how impossible all of this was, they wrote the script as a sample, to try and find work as staff writers. They wrote the show they wanted to see, the one they (and their agents) assumed would never get made.
Every television writer has those scripts. They’re always wonderful and smart and showcase what you can do. And the really good ones get you attention and meetings and jobs. But those scripts never get made.
Except this one did.
The show managed to make it on the air despite not having any big names in the cast - another rare feat, considering how many shows these days have at least one recognizable name attached these days, someone you can put on the poster.
The original Halt poster, meanwhile, looked like this:
(Because my father worked for them, the IBM logo font was instantly recognizable to me, but even then I still had no idea what this show was supposed to be about or why I should watch it.)
It’s a little tough to remember now, but when the show premiered in 2014, it starred, depending on how much film and television you consume:
- Four people you had never heard of.
- Three people you had never heard of and the pie-maker from Pushing Daisies
- Two people you had never heard of, the pie-maker from Pushing Daisies, and the woman who took over narrative duties in the last season of Scrubs
- The pie-maker from Pushing Daisies, the woman who took over narrative duties in the last season of Scrubs, a guy you might have seen if you went to film festivals in the mid-2000s, and Mackenzie Davis, who was still unknown at the time (unless maybe if you saw That Awkward Moment, which was released a few months before the show premiered? I don’t know. I’ve never seen it, though. Is it good? Oh shoot, I’m on a tangent. Back to Halt).
It also starred Toby Huss, who everyone should know because he is a goddamn delight whenever he’s on screen, but has remained to this day one of those actors where you see (or hear him, in the case of his voiceover work) and you say oh that guy! I recognize that guy. What’s his name again?
Shows with a mostly unknown cast don’t get on the air. They usually disappear quietly after filming the pilot, lost to a pile of rejected show DVDs stacked unceremoniously in a mid-level network executive’s file cabinet.
The show was never a hit from a ratings standpoint: it broke a million viewers a grand total of one time, when it premiered. The week to week ratings eventually settled somewhere between three to four hundred thousand viewers per episode, which is low, even for a beloved cable show.
For comparison, the ratings started out somewhere around Low Winter Sun-level numbers, and ended up around Feed The Beast-level numbers, two shows that were canceled after one season on AMC.
Shows with ratings this low don’t get a second season. Or a third. Or a fourth. Of course, ratings aren’t the only metric that a show is measured by, and the show did receive a lot of well-deserved critical acclaim.
But about that…
The show was renewed, despite the fact that just about everyone agrees that creatively, the first season was the weakest and the least defined, back when the show (and the network, if the marketing is any indication) was focused more on pushing the plot than our heroes, before they discovered the beautiful, quiet, human moments we’d get once we fell in love with these characters.
But after the show survived, Cantwell and Rogers took that opportunity, and pulled off something almost creatively impossible for a heavily serialized drama: they essentially rebooted the show each season, taking the narrative from PC cloning to gaming to online communities to the birth of the web.
In addition, the two flipped the gender balance on the show - taking a show that focused mostly on the two male leads in the first season and made the second season primarily about the women (and in doing so, made their biggest name,
the pie-maker Lee Pace, the least important character to the narrative), before ultimately settling into a place where all four leads became equally important.
(The show also quietly brought all four co-stars to salary parity in the final season, a small but nice gesture to the way the show evolved.)
This last bit is purely anecdotal, but the stories shared by people who worked on Halt and Catch Fire suggest that it was a great, supportive place to work, which makes the show even more enjoyable as a fan, as too often film and television is borne out of difficult (or worse) work environments.
It was almost impossible that Halt and Catch Fire was picked up by AMC. It was an almost impossible sell to viewers. It could have been canceled early for creative or financial reasons, and nobody (from the outside, at least) would have been surprised.
The odds of a show with these kinds of roadblocks getting to four seasons are astronomically low. The fact that it also became such a beautiful, emotional, heart-wrenching forty-hour journey is simply incredible, a feat of artistic vision and collaboration and love that deserves to be celebrated.
So while I will miss the show when it’s gone, I won’t be sad that this journey is over. Because it’s a miracle we got to go on this journey at all.
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