Mad Men was supposed to be a gamechanger. AMC’s landmark drama launched the careers of at least a half-dozen great actors, redefined the deployment of a period setting, and generally seemed to set up a template for future series to follow: find an interesting millieu, populate it with great actors, and watch them go. No need for high-octane plotting, elaborate season arcs, or an abundance of soapy relationships (though a dab helps) – just combine a sense of setting with great actors and a significant helping of cinematic flair and see what you can build over time.
Yet even a few years after Don Draper’s final pitch, it doesn’t feel like the series has a ton of descendants. If anything, content providers and showrunners seem to have derived the wrong lessons from Matthew Weiner’s success. Sure, there are plenty of series stuffed with sex and style, lots of series about people whose work lives seem to be their sole motivating force, more than a few series devoted to meticulously recreating a time or place, a ton of shows about damaged-but-gifted white men, and plenty of series stuffed with fine character actors, but post-Mad Men dramas seeking to eke out a similar following have largely forgotten what made Mad Men great: its marriage of these elements in service of theme and character.
Ironically, one of the few series that seems to have learned some of the right lessons was initially one of several denounced as an outright copycat. When it premiered on AMC in 2014, Halt and Catch Fire seemed doomed to an unceremonious and short life, and not only due to its weirdly portentous title. It had all the elements of a Mad Men clone, from its period setting (early-80s Dallas in its first season), to its specialist bent (tech pioneers in the early days of personal computing), to its attractive cast, including a monomaniacal, vaguely Draperesque rogue genius/asshole figure (Lee Pace’s Joe McMillan). Then, sometime unusual happened: it got good. Really good. Halt made a huge leap forward in its second season by employing the strategy later seen in HBO’s The Leftovers: producers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers took stock of what worked about the series, and what was lagging behind, and radically reorganized the series to accentuate its strengths. That willingness to course-correct paid off, and the series’ unlikely sophomore season, which mostly sidelined Joe in favor of promoting Mackenzie Davis’ anti-authoritarian programmer Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishé’s more-conventional-but-cunning Donna Clark to co-lead status and taking its cues from their mercurial relationship.
Since then, Halt has lingered on the brink of cancellation as one of TV’s least flashy, most steadfast pleasures, a smart (but accessible), stylish (but not ponderous), and emotional (but not cloying) drama about obsession, innovation, and the way the currents of commerce simultaneously encourage and inhibit the misfits trying to wrench their dreams into reality, as well as the interpersonal toll of living for work. (This is, after all, a series that shares significant DNA with Mad Men.) Halt isn’t just a great example of using the Mad Men template for good; it should serve as a template all its own, for how to mount an unpretentious, low-concept drama without resorting to what the Kings (of Good Wife / Good Fight fame) loved to call “schmuck bait.”
Like The Good Wife, Halt is a series about driven people in moneyed professional environs who, yes, occasionally fall in and out of love and friendship, as appropriate. Halt occupies a unique position by folding in the easygoing integrity of The Good Wife with the serialization of a Mad Men, resulting in a series that manages to borrow some of the breeziness of a network drama with the emotional heft of an upper-tier prestige drama. As a result, there’s an element of formula to Halt that manages to never feel rote or insulting. Every season opens with our heroes finding themselves unwittingly about to pursue a major wave of innovation in computer science, from the personal computer, to the web, to online gaming and communication, and, in this latest and final season (set in 1993), the search engine. Every season finds the players shuffled around in a new corporate configuration, with allegiances having shifted according to who has sinned against the other most recently. Most individual episodes tend to feature a major challenge or setback to one of the major enterprises of the season, and generally those challenges are surmounted by episode’s end, usually dealing a major blow to one or more of the series’ core relationships.
And if on paper that all sounds terribly, well, formulaic, the primary innovation of Halt is that even if the viewer detects these patterns, they’re unlikely to care, because Cantwell and Rogers, along with their stellar cast, have done a remarkable job of fleshing out the core players. On Halt there isn’t a single bad character decision that’s not defensible, no plot convulsion that feels unnatural, no dialogue that feels clunky or nakedly expositional. (Halt is one of the few currently airing series that features long sequences of characters conversing with each other that seems to reflect how people actually talk, exemplified by an episode-long phone call that makes up the bulk of the new season’s second episode.) There isn’t a single aspect of Halt that seeks to redefine the form, it just executes every single aspect really goddamn well, from the performances, to the playful, left-of-the-dial music supervision (“Pink Turns to Blue”! “Doll Parts”!), to the clever-but-not-obnoxious use of period details. Perhaps most importantly of all, Halt actually takes the time to have pet themes that aren’t just “how can we test our viewers’ empathy thresholds?” Halt’s characters constantly fret about the best way to shelter, generate, and develop ideas, desperate to find a balance between satisfying their considerable egos and hopefully finding actually helpful, productive (not merely profitable) avenues for the new technologies they’ve sunk their energies into. That structural tension between the bottom line and the end result has acted as a backbone for a series that’s a hell of a lot smarter and more substantive than it initially seemed it would ever have a right to be.
With its fourth and final season, Halt has a chance to cement its reputation as one of the few “cult” non-genre series of the last decade or so, and based on its first three episodes, it seems very likely that Cantwell and Rogers will keep the series in its productive niche. Halt will never be remembered as a form-buster, but the series’ sense of confidence and craftsmanship, as well as its commitment to its core concerns, characters, and relationships, will hopefully resonate in the minds of future creatives as a blueprint for how to pull off a workplace drama with a soul.