The search continues. Week after week. The search is for another series, that particularly engrossing, enveloping series set in a world that entrances us and with characters who grab and surprise us with the texture of their full roundedness.
We're in a tricky period in TV. Not just the end-of-season calm before a batch of summer shows arrive to distract. But a period in which Mad Men is over, forever, and Better Call Saul is gone and only returning many, many months from now. We await the second season of True Detective with a tincture of skepticism. Can it be good? And what is truly, outrageously a good show right now?
I recommend Halt and Catch Fire (Sunday, AMC, 10 p.m.), which returns for a second season. It didn't, you know, catch fire with a mass audience last year, but it was often sublimely good. And remains so. It takes us into a fantastic, involving world. It's a period piece, but one so close and yet so incredibly far from us, thanks to the rapidity of technological change.
Halt and Catch Fire takes place in 1980's Dallas. This is not the Dallas of J.R. Ewing with his sprawling ranch and passel of friends and enemies in cowboy hats. In the 1980s, Dallas was the location of a small, intense tech-company boom. Some called it the "Silicon Prairie."
In the first season, the central character was renegade computer visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and the narrative was his manic efforts to lure hardware guy Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and programming wizard Cameron Howe (Canadian Mackenzie Davis) into creating an easy-to-use, early laptop computer.
Workplace rage, romance, business piracy and sex ensued. It was clever, sometimes raw, this journey.
In season two, set one year later, the first focus is on Cameron, who is steaming ahead with plans to build and launch a gaming startup called Mutiny. Her sidekick in this endeavour is Donna (Kerry Bishé). Thus we have two young, driven, smart young women striding into a very male, very nerdy world where fortunes can be made. The technology is crude by our standards – the material about phone lines and modems seem ancient history – but it all happened just 30 years ago.
Cameron and Donna run Mutiny from a large home, surrounded by an army of geeky young men. Some might be geniuses but all are adolescent in mindset. They bicker, and fist fights break out. They know they are on the cutting edge, but the mundane reality around them is disappointing. In one scene, the house goes dark. "We didn't blow the breaker. I think we blew the whole block," says a young man who can create holograms for the gaming device but can't get enough electricity to keep it working.
Created and written by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, the show is alive to its setting – the main characters are cowboys, villains and outlaws even while early-eighties punk music blares from radios and on the soundtrack. There's a cool, strange quality to this world and its atmosphere. The fact that two young women are bossing the enterprise gives it an added piquancy.
Eventually there comes the return of the charismatic and manipulative Joe, but now he seems to be a guy recovering from a long and brutal hangover. He's still sharp, still the renegade, and what he sees in what Cameron is building is, in fact, the future – connectivity and the Internet. And that Cameron has gone from being "a college dropout repairing VCRs for $3.25 an hour" to the leading edge of the massive revolution.
There is no creeping nostalgia in Halt and Catch Fire. Nor is there the typical Hollywood heft of stand-up-and-cheer for the renegades. There is no falseness, no push to have us view these characters and their motivations with anything but damning clarity.
The verve of the drama and its occasional flourish of bitter comedy amounts to a terrific exuberance in the storytelling. And it's a world you feel drawn to. It's not Mad Men, this series, but it does soar to great heights.