Sunday, August 16, 2015

Halt and Catch Fire: Critics vs. Viewers

Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s excellent drama about the rise of personal computing, recently completed its second season. If the declining ratings are any indication, there won’t be a third. 

Even as the show’s prospects seem dim, however, a surprising critical consensus has emerged in favor of renewal. HACF underwent something of a reboot between S1 and S2, and many critics who weren’t fans of S1  -- e.g., Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker and Andy Greenwald of Grantland -- are now singing the show’s praises.

What’s surprising about these critical raves is that many fans of the show, myself included, were disappointed by S2. On the imdb message boards, for example, the viewer preference for S1 has been every bit as strong as the critical consensus favoring S2.

So, what’s the source of this disconnect between critics vs. regular viewers?

Some have suggested it’s all just critical spin, and there's probably some truth to that. But spin is usually self interested, and I have to wonder, what are the critics getting out of this? I’m skeptical respected writers like Nussbaum and Greenwald are getting paid off.

My theory is the critical preference for S2 has more to do with all the television that critics are forced to watch. Seriously. Bear with me for a moment. 

When HACF premiered, the story revolved around Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), a talented but tortured male anti-hero with a mysterious past. In S2, however, the focus shifted away from Joe toward Cameron Howe, a talented but tortured female programmer.

One of the biggest complaints you hear from TV critics is how tired they are of the male anti-hero protagonist. So many recent shows have featured this element that it's become a kind of cliche. And who has to watch all those cliched shows? Critics. 

I think being force fed all those male anti-heroes has made TV critics reflexively hostile to them. So, when HACF premiered, they were primed to dislike Joe. And when HACF shifted away from Joe, critics lauded the change. Here's how Greenwald puts it:
The highlight of Halt’s first season was Mackenzie Davis’s performance as Cameron Howe, a punky mantis who looked like a John Hughes heroine and coded like a David Fincher villain. The only programmer capable (and crazy) enough to bring the Giant to life, Cameron should have been the lead. Yet Davis spent the majority of the season struggling to fit in, spinning like an asteroid between two lesser moons: Pace’s Joe, an ethically questionable Jobsian dreamer (with whom she was briefly paired off in a catastrophically wrongheaded relationship), and McNairy’s Gordon, a mercurial, Woz-zy engineer. It was a tired triangle that smacked of risk-averse industry groupthink, exactly the sort of 8-bit thinking the Giant was meant to upend.
You can see echoes of the same criticism in Nussbaum's appraisal, though she (wisely, in my opinion) prefers the character of Donna Clark, who also is a focus of S2:
The pilot felt like a wishful mashup, using elements scavenged from reruns. There was a Don Draper-ish salesman, Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who had a tormented family history, a closet full of Armani suits, and a gift for gassy monologues.  
Season 2 jumps forward fourteen months, wrenching the ensemble into a new hierarchy. Joe is no longer the main character; he’s been sidelined and humbled, and the focus is now on Cameron and Donna, a former engineer herself, who have teamed up to run a small company called Mutiny, which starts out in gaming but evolves into a developer of chat rooms and discussion boards, with echoes of Compuserve and Prodigy. 
Unlike critics, viewers are free pick and choose what we watch. Although we're all tired of the anti-hero cliche, too, it doesn't elicit the same knee-jerk response. As a result, regular viewers were able to see the merits of Joe's character -- and S1 generally -- more clearly than critics. 

When the focus of the story shifted away from Joe in S2, viewers were predictably disappointed. Therein lies a big source of the disparity.
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