'Halt and Catch Fire' Season 3: TV Review

Tina Rowden/AMC
A plot reboot should welcome new viewers.

AMC's computer pioneer drama moves to San Francisco, but the acting and character work remain top-notch.

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire is doing the best it can to be welcoming to new audiences. The first season got an ill-deserved rep for starting too slowly and struggling to find its characters, so the second season dramatically changed its focus, going from the development of a personal computer to the evolution of online social space and gaming. That earned the show a well-deserved reputation for enriching the character work and raising the dramatic stakes. The third season finds Halt and Catch Fire moving from Texas to San Francisco and changing focus to the development of Silicon Valley and the birth of the internet.

So while my own instinct is always to tell people, "Watch the whole darned thing, because it's a good show and you'll get value out of seeing the full progression of the characters," I appreciate that Halt and Catch Fire has designed itself so that it can still gain viewers, which wouldn't be a difficult task, since very, very few people watch the show. Which is a bummer since it's really one of the better dramas on TV — particularly right now in the waning days of the summer.

The third-season premiere marks the beginning of series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers' tenure as showrunners, taking over for the departed Jonathan Lisco, and it fittingly serves as both a reboot and a confirmation of creative continuity.

Mutiny has moved to the Bay Area and although it's growing its user base and cultivating its community, Donna (Kerry Biché) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) realize that they need another big idea to take the business to the next level, or else they'll eventually stagnate. Gordon (Scoot McNairy) is doing odd jobs for Mutiny and trying to fit in with the company's frat-house culture, but the health problems he's been exhibiting are only getting worse. He's also suing Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), who has become the industry's anti-virus God, while looking for that next big computing idea.

The four-character core has always been the heart of Halt and Catch Fire and, much more than the tech mumbo jumbo, the source of the show's real emotional stakes. The main cast has been worthy of awards attention, not that actual nominations have followed. McNairy has given a nervous soul to Gordon's self-destructive streak and his twitchy excellence adds tension to even the smallest of decisions. A misreading of Joe as the show's hero or antihero in the first season caused some viewers and critics to look away from the very complicated work that Pace has been doing in crafting an enigmatic character who has a particular genius, but a genius that isn't always necessarily apparent or useful. The third season makes Joe into even more of a Steve Jobs-esque figure, both the positives and negatives, bringing back a key character detail from previous seasons and emphasizing Joe's many insecurities.

Truly, though, the best reason to watch Halt and Catch Fire remains the Cameron-Donna relationship, a unique combination of friendship, professional partnership and spiritual sisterhood. There's nothing like it on TV. Bishé navigates Donna among her roles as wife, mother and hard-nosed businesswoman in a complicated way that makes a mockery of facile "Can women have it all?" TV dramas like The Mysteries of Laura, while the psychological complexity of Cameron's journey from punk-rock programming savant to uncomfortable team player is both fragile and still badass as Davis depicts it. That Cameron begins the third season cohabiting with Gordon and Donna (and the two daughters I'd almost forgotten about) presents renewable opportunities for conflict and also humor.

With those pieces in place, the third season is also emerging, through its first five episodes, as a breakthrough for Toby Huss' John Bosworth. Reconciling the Bosworth we met in the first season and the more avuncular figure he became in the second was sometimes difficult, and cracks are beginning to show. Huss is thriving as Halt and Catch Fire lets him connect the tenuous dots between Bosworth as Texas huckster and struggling father figure.

Servicing five great performances and nuanced characters makes it hard to introduce new characters. I'm still not sure how I feel about Manish Dayal's Ryan, a restless programmer who wants somebody to see and utilize his brilliance, and Annabeth Gish's Diane, an entrepreneur who intersects with Donna as a mother and a money-woman.

The textual move to San Francisco didn't include an actual production move to the city, and you sense the show sometimes struggling to compensate with so-so green screens and backdrops, while also remaining primarily an indoor drama. Within those confines, it's still one of TV's best-directed shows, with the second episode, helmed by Kimberly Peirce, a real standout. The early episodes are starting to make full use of the 1986 San Francisco milieu, not quite giving a broader portrait of the city, but handling the AIDS crisis in interesting and relevant ways. I appreciate the writers not forcing things, but I also hope the cultural shift from Texas to San Francisco becomes more tangible.

Halt and Catch Fire is still set so early in the computer revolution I have no doubt there are more stories to tell with these characters. After a first season spent finding itself, that initial renewal felt like a blessing. The next renewal felt like recognition for a job well done. Now it's time for audiences to find the show. It's not too late to watch the first 20 episodes, but if it'll guarantee new eyeballs, I'd allow viewers to just jump in with the third-season premiere. You'll figure it out.

Cast: Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Biché, Toby Huss
Creators-showrunners: Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers
Season premiere: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT;
subsequent episodes air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. (AMC)