For anyone working in the computer industry in the 1980s, this AMC program is going to feel very familiar. It’s a fictional story about a Dallas-based company working to build a clone of the IBM PC, and the technical and personal struggles of the employees. But it’s oh, so much more.
It’s a soap opera! This is not some hagiographic ode to the plucky startup like Jobs. This is TV, so the producers had to tart it up a bit. That’s why we can’t frame this article with a promise like “Six Lessons for Your Startup from Halt and Catch Fire.” These people put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.” Like Mad Men’s Don Draper, one of the male protagonists is an attractive smooth talker who is hiding a secret from his past and gets beat up—physically and otherwise—along the way. Much like Breaking Bad, we have spouses lying and cheating. Everybody’s sleeping with everybody. Everyone’s lying to everyone. It’s a hoot.
It’s geeky! The technology in this program—and it can get pretty heavy—doesn’t talk down to the audience. There aren’t any of the “As you know, Donna” explanations that popped up so often in The West Wing. These characters geek first and explain later. “It’s degaussed!” characters yell, only later mentioning that putting a disk in front of a functioning speaker can damage it. Even the title of the show is an homage to the “Halt and Catch Fire” alternative meaning behind a particular IBM mainframe command. And here’s a suggestion for a new drinking game: every time you see a computer you actually owned at the time, take a drink.
It passes the Bechdel Test! One of the criticisms aimed at shows and movies set in the tech industry is the dearth of female characters, followed by the inevitable excuse that there aren’t many women in the field. Here’s a show set in an era where there really weren’t a lot of women in technology, and yet the show features female characters without making it feel like pandering. The female protagonist is like a geeky Sinead O’Connor—brilliant and erratic, and prone to sleeping with the wrong guys. The wife of the male protagonist is an engineer at Texas Instruments, who saves the day (we think) while at the same time juggling child care and wearing those godawful 1980s Dress for Success power suits.
Dallas! Recall that in the 1980s, the biggest show on television was Dallas, and this isn’t far from it. (You almost expect to see J.R. show up in the office as a potential investor.) You have Southern accents. You have cowboy boots. You have drinkin’. And you have good ol’ boy—and gal—Texas business intrigue, where the cops are in the back pocket of the corporations.
Frighteningly accurate home décor! Not since That ‘70s Show has there been such loving attention given to the set design of this era. The earth-tone zigzag afghan on the couch! The avocado side-by-side refrigerator! The metal desks! Watch it in HD so your eyeballs can really bleed.
The season finale airs this Sunday. In the meantime you can catch up with the show on Amazon, even if you don’t have cable. Check it out.
Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.
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