Minor Spoiler alerts ahead, though I don’t go into great detail about the show. The full series is available on Netflix and probably other streaming sites
We recently watched the series Halt and Catch Fire, which is about a small part of the history of personal computing and the birth of the world wide web. Throughout the show we follow our protagonists as they build a portable IBM clone in 1983, start an online gaming company and BBS before the Internet, and find themselves at the forefront of a variety of computing revolutions.
The sad aspect of this show is that they are basing it on real world events, and in the real world we know who some of the winners and losers are. That’s why our heroes are the perennial underdog, as each time they stumble upon a major innovation (Online communities! The World Wide Web! Hyperlinking! Search engines!), they are surpassed by a well known rival and left to be the footnote, if they make it into the history books at all.
An interesting outcome is the subversion of narrative that this basic fact of the show produces. When you invest time in characters you begin to root for their causes. You want these poeple to win, and for their companies to become the ultimate victors in the race for computing supremacy. The fact that they routinely fail is something that you instinctively know will happen barring a rewrite of history, but it is disheartening nonetheless. The world of Halt and Catch Fire is messy, like all of the characters, and it is that messiness that makes it compelling.
I liked the nods to internet history, the cameos, and the wink-nudges or easter eggs that are tossed in without trying too hard to be clever. I liked the story of a group of underdogs making their way in the world, leaving marks and impressions of various sizes. I didn’t always like how the characters acted, but I understood that they were more fleshed out than caricatures made to force us to feel one way or another.
One of the highlights of my enjoyment of Halt and Catch Fire was the fact that I could completely agree with the logic and decisions of a character during their many interpersonal feuds, while acknowleding that they were not in the right. Just like the real world you can be the smartest one in the room but with no one willing to listen it will amount to a bitter I-told-you-so.
I try not to get into too many shows, as the time investment in them can be great. I can say that if you are interested in this specific period of computing history, or enjoy interpersonal dramas that are not over the top, Halt and Catch Fire is worth a look. The show has its flaws, but it ultimately redeems itself even in futility.