Indeed, Halt seems to reboot itself with each new season. It began as a familiarly anti-heroic drama about Joe’s hostile takeover of a tiny Texas electronics company in a quixotic quest to design a next-generation personal computer, but by Season Two the focus was on Cameron and Donna’s joint venture Mutiny, a video game company turned early Internet service provider and proto-social network. From the new setting to the new showrunners (Jonathan Lisco, who was at the helm for the series’ first two seasons, departed for TNT’s Animal Kingdom), the leap from Season Two to Season Three is equally dramatic. “We almost err on the side of so much reinvention that it’s frustrating,” Cantwell says. “But the technology industry is like that. Having to keep up with that constant change allows us to reinvent characters, to do some really cool stuff.”
It’s also helped the show itself catch fire—critically, if not commercially. After early growing pains driven by antihero fatigue (not helped by AMC’s decision to plop Joe and company right into the time slot recently vacated by the network’s previous period piece Mad Men), the show slowly evolved into a story about its passionate core quartet of tech whizzes struggling to work together, rather than to tear each other apart. By the time the women took center stage in the second season, critics were fully on board, making Halt one of 2015’s most acclaimed shows. Audiences, however, had yet to follow suit, and the series’ low ratings made its renewal an iffy proposition for months before the network finally gave the go-ahead.
“What I was told was that the journalists were the one who championed this thing,” McNairy confides during a break in shooting. “Like, ‘Please come back, please come back, please come back.’ I think the network was like, ‘Well, they definitely liked the show.'”
So does the network itself. “The guys from New York talk about it like fans,” Cantwell says. “Yes, they factor in all of the analytics and data in determining our future, but so far a big portion of [their decision-making process] has been, ‘Do we like this show? Yes, we like it a lot. Just go do your thing.’” Like the saga of the Internet upstarts it chronicles, Halt itself is, as cast and crew frequently call it, an underdog story—albeit one with an unusual amount of leeway to do things its own way.
Hence the series’ latest reinvention, and its third chance to snag an audience commensurate with the show’s quality: Halt and Catch Fire Season Three, which begins tonight. That fact alone makes Halt something of a success story—or what passes for one in the era of Peak TV, in which hundreds of scripted shows struggle for a share of the public’s attention, an uphill battle for any series without dragons or zombies in its arsenal. Getting that third season is a rare case of a show being rewarded simply for being well made rather than pulling in ratings or tapping the Twitter-trend zeitgeist. It’s a struggle that’d feel familiar to the characters themselves.
“There’s an intrinsic metaphor to what we’re doing here,” Kerry Bishé tells me before shooting that afternoon. “We’re making a TV show and the characters are making their technology, but the big goal is making a beautiful, perfect product that can go to market and succeed. It’d be nice if more people watched our show, but I’m doing work I love and value. We define ourselves so much by success in our jobs that I think it’s worth investigating what success is. What counts. What matters.”
I visited the set of Halt and Catch Fire and interviewed actors Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé, Toby Huss, and Matthew Lillard, as well as co-creators and co-showrunners Chris Cantwell and Chris C. Rogers, for Esquire. Here’s my report on the long road to Halt Season Three. The show starts again tonight at 9pm on AMC, and it’s one of the best on TV. Don’t miss it!