Strange Vistas


Halt and Catch Fire, main characters

I originally reviewed Halt and Catch Fire in two parts, first seasons 1-2 and then seasons 3-4. Here are both short reviews together.

Halt, Midway Through

Come on.

Nobody was adding math co-processors to computer kits back in the 8086 times, much less portables.

Yes, that's a nerd's complaint.

It shouldn't be what I say about this show, since it doesn't have a lot of tech background. Its history feels retrofitted, retroactively convenient for the times. They are too visionary, too misunderstood, too under-appreciated. It's got some well-written drama, but as far as tech or entrepreneurship goes, it's lacking.

Its main sin is that, two and a half seasons in, it doesn't make me want to run out and build something. Anything.

It does make me want to pitch, though.

I guess that's something.

Halt, at the end

Halt and Catch Fire continues its “tech's greatest hits” tour in seasons 3 and 4, with their characters inventing even more things ahead of their time. In less than 20 episodes, they manage to come up with:

  • Anti-virus software;
  • Web crawlers;
  • Yahoo;
  • Internet service providers;
  • and the commercial World Wide Web.

It's a techie's face-palming wonderland. It features an anti-virus written in BASIC, a packet sniffer which can sniff packets hour or days after the fact, and Unreal Engine-level graphics in 1994 (for an Atari game, no less).

But finally. Finally, at the end of season 3, they capture the builder spirit. That thing emanating from a few people, alone inside four bare walls, trying to figure out if there's something they can create out of someone else's concept. The angles of attack. The frustration of being left out. They get it right. Even if the writers can't stop themselves from making Cameron a über-genius who can build entire tech epochs by herself.

Its tech is window dressing, anyway. It's just there to anchor the drama and give them something to argue about.

This thing we do – programming, engineering, building businesses, the whole thing – is nothing but a hack. It's a hack implemented on top of a system force-grown, on a budget, against much more modest requirements: to avoid getting eaten by a tiger.

Season 4 understands that. Building stuff is great, and it provides a purpose, but it's also methadone to keep you calm while you find out if you were one of those who made it. Methadone only gets you so far.

You throw rational people into a room, give them something they all feel strongly about, and watch the apes club each other with keyboards.

Most of them do OK. Boss takes one step outside himself, gets a glimpse of greatness, but it costs him himself. Gordon realizes his potential, grows as a person, even if that growth is stunted. Donna wakes up, starts walking her own path, then runs, picks up so much speed she can't stop herself, no matter how conflicted she is about where her legs take her. Joe goes from charismatic salesman to hating his success to Jobs-wannabe to somehow coalescing all the personas into a cool John Cusack, then back to Joe. Only Cameron remains Cameron, her wardrobe gradually less janky but her persona just as sketched, the chip that doubles for a pauldron just as big.

She's only there to introduce chaos, anyway. Yeah, she's the one coming up with most of the impossible breakthroughs. But her whole shtick is to proclaim, in anger, why she's right and everyone's wrong. With as much door-slamming as she can manage.

It works, as a tactic. A decade of fighting about implementation details can make you feel you belong, even if the place is at each other's throats. Arguing means you care what the other thinks.

Frenemies are still friends.

#haltandcatchfire #tvseries #leepace #scootmcnairy #mackenziedavis #kerrybishe #tobyhuss

Poster for Bad Guys

Am I done watching this one?

I think I'm done watching this one.

Bad Guys' pitch must have been “imagine the A-Team... but they're all evil!”

(Cue Korean drama executive pissing his pants)

A cop gets killed in Seoul, chasing after a serial killer. On his own, for some reason, with just a camera-man following. Suicidal tendencies notwithstanding, he's not a random cop but a Big Shot's son, so this time someone does something. Big Shot asks Hard-Drinking Loose-Canon Cop to put together a team to deal with crime. The cops are too rigid-minded for criminals, so Loose-Canon hand-picks a bunch of criminals. They're supposed to compete with each other – whoever solves a crime or saves a victim first, gets time off his sentence.

They are:

  • A cute serial killer who could be in a boy band (and probably is), doesn't remember any of his murders (so he might be innocent!) and is also a young genius with a handful of PhDs (aren't they all?);
  • A handsome assassin (who could have been in a boy band), whose methods and victims are unknown (I guess we take his word for the whole “being a hitman” thing), who's never made a single mistake (how would you know if you don't know his victims or methods?), but who gave himself up for no obvious reason (a woman, duh);
  • The tough-guy mobster who took over Seoul in a blink, got caught, took over prison, and is obviously the class-clown actor auditioning for straight-man roles with better material.

Oh, and there's a token woman too, as a the straight-laced, stiff-necked official trying to keep them in line.

But wait, it's not that simple! Pretty boy might not be a killer at all! Assassin model has a heart of gold! Mobster... mobster... might be the only part worth salvaging!

The crimes they deal with are a teenager's idea of what would be both shocking and totally rad: they not only make no plot sense but might be physically impossible (a villain chops a body into 356 pieces with a knife). There is so much plastic surgery that if I blink while watching it, my ears smart. The soundtrack is perfunctory “cool guys doing cool stuff”. The only thing more bombastic than the dialogue is the camera work.

I lasted three episodes. On my defense, I was trying to get my ear re-accustomed to Korean. And I was drinking.

#tvseries #southkorea

The Knick - Promotional image

Coming to in the opium den. Injecting cocaine to wake up. Zipping through operations high on liquid lightning. Infectious energy lifting everyone else around. Dignified walk out of the hospital. Opium at night to sleep.

White shoes. Red hands. Gray soul.

Immigrants, trying to make do against a xenophobic populace, the previous wave of imported labor concerned that the current batch is taking their jobs.

Racism. Pragmatism. Subversion.

Is this period piece a commentary on current day America? Race? Healthcare? People avoid going to a doctor at all costs, can't afford to convalesce, don't want to be treated by a “dusky coon”.

The Knick was a couple-three years before its time. Now, when half the country has stopped pretending there has been much social progress, and the other half that they wanted any, it would be incendiary.

Its procedures are barbaric, more guesswork than medicine. The best you can hope for is to get the patients to die slower, so you can have time to sew them up. Drugs, corruption, rampant.

Death. Commonplace, quotidian.

Whores and syringes. Alcohol and anger. Greed and malfeasance.

Introduce noise into your environment so that it distracts you, turns off the bickering voices, lets the inner you speak. Consume yourself for inspiration. Burn at your own pyre.

Watching someone invent the future. Flying too close to your heroes. Guilt, the great brain scrambler.

This is it. This is all that we are. All blood and guts, exposed for your entertainment. Playing brinkmanship with ourselves, trying to scrape away as much of the system 2 as we can so that the system 1 can do its thing. Surrendering to our worst selves so we can become someone else.

Release. Frustration. Self-immolation.

Defeat. Again.

#theknick #tvseries #stevesoderberg #cliveowen #andreholland #caraseymor #evehewson #addiction