I grew up around computers. Not in the same “born with a smart phone in my hands” way the current generation has, I’m just old enough that when my dad forced us to get familiar with them as kids it was still a novelty. Mario taught me how to type, Oregon Trail taught me all about frontier diseases and chances are if you were on AOL in the ’90s, adolescent me trolled you once or twice. As immersed as I have been in this world of technology for most of my life, it’s only relatively recently that there has been much in the way of worthwhile pop culture examinations of tech pioneers and business. For every The Social Network there are a handful of Big Bang Theories and technophobic paranoid works like WarGames, works that fall back not on tense depictions of the real cutthroat world of the tech industry or insightful examinations of the real human beings behind these miraculous advancements but instead on cheap stereotypes and cliches. Somehow, though, 2014 has brought us two separate series that have reverse engineered both the good and the bad ends of tech life to create something exciting and new.
On the same night that Mike Judge’s excellent HBO tech comedy Silicon Valley was wrapping up, AMC debuted Halt and Catch Fire, a tech drama marketed as the heir apparent to the Mad Men throne. Tonally, the shows couldn’t be more different, but they nonetheless share cultures, inspirational DNA and certain plot points, to the degree that Silicon Valley’s finale climaxed with a nailbiting moment of emergency rebuilding while Halt and Catch Fire’s premier offered up its own, more illegal rebuilding.
Like Judge’s previous workplace effort Office Space, much of Silicon Valley’s humor stems from its accuracy. Judge and his writers aren’t mocking a culture, they’re laughing with it at shared experiences from the endless buzzword froth that builds up at launch parties, tech conferences and pitch meetings to the frustration at inane corporate culture. Even viewers who don’t understand the jargon can get in on the joke because the talented ensemble cast makes it clear that to their characters, the jargon is a joke in and of itself, as is the absurdity of what they do. But Silicon Valley is more than a sitcom, it’s a genuinely well plotted narrative, too, where the humor adds to the very real professional and emotional stakes its characters face as they attempt to challenge a corporate behemoth and not just survive, but remain true to themselves too.
Set in the present, Silicon Valley runs parallel to Halt and Catch Fire, which aims to illustrate the Wild West that was the birth of the PC era. The pilot of Halt and Catch Fire starts with “IBM exec” Joe MacMillan asking a class of hopeful computer engineers what subjects they’re knowledgeable in, telling them to take their hands down each time he reaches something they don’t know about until only two students have their hands up. MacMillan then asks those two what they think the future of computing will be like and after the first student offers up some jargon heavy bullshit, he cuts him off and proceeds to the last student, Cameron Howe, whose response is focused on the then still developing internet. It’s a great hook for an opening, since it plays on the 20/20 hindsight we have as citizens of the internet future, but it also establishes why the cast of characters the show focuses on have come together: they all have a shared vision of the future but they all have different motives in regards to that future.
Silicon Valley’s cast are also citizens of the internet future and thus are natural descendants of the odd trio that make up Halt and Catch Fire’s leads: Scoot McNairy’s Gordon Clark is the nerdier ’80s version of Thomas Middleditch’s Richard Hendriks, a shy, withdrawn guy who doesn’t yet realize he’s a visionary; Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan is what TJ Miller’s Erlich Bachman views himself as, a smooth talking con man with great style and some minor success that he plays up while inwardly admitting it wasn’t enough; and Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron Howe is Silicon Valley’s collection of savvy outsiders collected into a more confident, dangerous package. That isn’t to say these characters aren’t unique, but Silicon Valley’s characters are the first to acknowledge the rebel tech pioneers who created the path they’re going down. That why it’s so unfortunate that most critics have latched onto AMC’s Mad Men promo angle to the point where they’re forcing its square edges into a very round hole, but truthfully that says more about the dearth of quality culture about this era and world than the show’s actual similarities to the previous occupant of its timeslot.
With its muted, washed out visual palette and its refusal to be as blunt about era specific fashions and aesthetics as Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire is more accurately described as Glengarry Glen Ross for the PC set than Don Draper goes tech. But there’s more than Glengarry in there, there’s also elements of con noir works like The Grifters as well as the outsized personalities and speech of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. Silicon Valley’s characters operate from the safety net of the open architecture that Halt and Catch Fire’s Gordon Clark is presented as a pioneer of in its pilot. Building off of essential tech tomes like David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, Halt and Catch Fire is one of the first series to really understand that an effective computer drama can be built by emphasizing the con artist and rebel aspects of PC pioneers. Rather than leaning on Mad Men’s glamorization of its corporate culture, Halt and Catch Fire goes in an opposite direction, playing up the seemingly disparate group of people making up the early computer boom world, all of whom had vastly different ideas about where computers were going and how they were going to get there, all of whom were at constant conflict over those ideas, even when they were operating within the same company.
In the pilot, Clark is a grounding force between the anarchic sensibilities of MacMillan and Howe, who are in turn at odds with each other. MacMillan sees computers as more than a corporate tool, but a sexy device that can be sold to consumers at an exponential rate. Howe is confident that computers are a liberating force and it’s only a matter of time before they break down so many of the barriers that keep people out of the tech game. Clark just sees technological strides that are only being held back by patent law, which he wants to get around not for profit but for exploration. Threatening to smash this trifecta at either end are the midsize corporation that employs them and IBM, the corporate behemoth they all hate and managed to piss off. The pilot can be heavy handed at times, and the Clark family drama subplot isn’t as developed as other elements of the show, but it already looks as tough Halt and Catch Fire will be the first new AMC series in quite a while to capture the zeitgeist the same way Breaking Bad and Mad Men did, particularly if Howe is allowed to become the breakout character instead of MacMillan, who unfortunately has the potential to fall into the “troubled privileged white man” archetype AMC series seem to love.
Even if Halt and Catch Fire doesn’t quite escape that trope, the show has a good enough handle on its world and its characters that it should have no trouble joining Silicon Valley as one of the best, most human examinations of the misunderstood tech culture in the pop canon. And it’s about damn time we got a decent peek at the people behind our current techtopia.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover