Have you ever met one of those jag-offs, whether online or out in the world, who absolutely cannot fathom why you haven’t watched TV Series X? I ran into him/her often when Lost was still on the air. I found it completely insufferable that my general lack of interest was never a sufficient excuse— that somehow I was wrong for not wanting to watch. As those mighty have fallen, I find myself becoming that jag-off that tells people they should watch Halt and Catch Fire, and am usually met with shrugging indifference. Full disclosure: I dragged my feet quite a bit on starting the series. The first season sat on my media server for six months before I finally gave an episode a try and subsequently devoured the rest, causing me to wonder why I had waited so long. I’ve had a soft spot for tales of American computer dynasties since reading Microserfs in high school, making the Silicon Prairie-set drama seem like a shoo-in. My curiosity led me to generate the four theories below for why this series is neither a ratings nor a cult hit. Believe that this is not an attempt to convince you to start watching the show; merely some educated guesses that can double as excuses to defend yourself from the faux-flabbergasted jag-off (like me!) who won’t otherwise shut up.
- You don’t recognize any of the lead actors
- It was lazily sold as Mad Men in the 80s
- You’re a millennial. Translation: The show over-indexes with high-income viewers ($100k +)
- You’re a millennial. Translation: It doesn’t gif well
If you’re intrigued by the TL;DR, please continue.
Let’s start with the cast. You haven’t seen most of them, and unless you were a huge fan of Pushing Daisies or Argo, you probably don’t recognize any of them. Lee Pace, playing Risky Businessman/Visionary Joe MacMillan, has appeared more frequently and more high grossing-ly on screen than any of his primary Catch Fire cast mates, but his big movie roles (Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hobbit trilogy) saw his moneymaker so obscured with blue paint and white wigs that the most recognizable facial feature was his robust eyebrow game. As for the rest of the main cast: Google Fiber is older than the acting career of Mackenzie Davis, who plays rebel-to-a-fault code wizard Cameron Howe. Kerry Bishé (Donna Clark) and Scoot McNairy (Gordon Clark), who could not possess more ‘80s-sounding names if their parents used an ‘80s name generator in the ‘70s, proved they were capable of handling the oversized glasses and navel-high jeans required for Catch Fire by their turns in 2012’s Academy Award-winning Argo. But aside from an ABC-era Scrubs run and a stint on Bones, they have few wide distribution credits to offer up for recognition factor.
However, you should know Toby Huss, who plays the recently un-incarcerated and, somewhat ironically, moral compass of the group, Bosworth. And you do know him, even if you don’t recognize his face. Huss has been acting since the era in which Catch Fire is set, racking up credits for what looks like a pretty fucking fun career for a working actor: most notably, Artie, The Strongest Man in the World from The Adventure of Pete and Pete which ran on Nickelodeon from 1992 to 1994. His roster also includes an impressive slate of voiceover work for cult animation hits such as Adventure Time, Beavis and Butthead, The Venture Bros. and King of the Hill. While it’s worth watching to see what Huss looks like in a suit instead of red and blue-striped pajamas 20 years later, stick around for his extremely passable Dallas drawl— a crucial point of believability for a viewer raised in the South.
Next, let’s take the logline distributed to press prior to the premiere of the series: “Set in the early 1980s, this series dramatizes the personal computing boom through the eyes of a visionary, an engineer and a prodigy whose innovations directly confront the corporate behemoths of the time. Their personal and professional partnership will be challenged by greed and ego while charting the changing culture in Texas’ Silicon Prairie.” Now let’s replace a couple of words. “Set in the early 1960s, this series dramatizes the advertising boom through the eyes of a visionary, an account man and a prodigy whose innovations directly confront the gender roles of the time. Their personal and professional partnership will be challenged by greed and ego while charting the changing culture in American society.” Sound familiar? AMC was banking on it.
When production began on Catch Fire in mid-2013, it was no secret that its two biggest cash cows (Mad Men and Breaking Bad) would soon be put out to pasture, leaving AMC with a razor-thin scripted roster (The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels) and two ratings leeches (The Talking Dead and Comic Book Men) that broke through from an otherwise fruitless foray into reality television. The network did not have the luxury of taking a shot in the dark, lest it lose its slot competing with the likes of drama juggernauts F/X and HBO. So, naturally, it tried to serve up a second helping of “period drama” to the Mad Men audience, hoping they were still hungry.
AMC wasn’t the first, either; remember The Playboy Club? Neither does NBC, which only ran three episodes of the ‘60s-set drama in its 2011 Fall season. Pan Am, another network attempt to capture the non-existent fascination with the ‘60s that ABC assumed kept Mad Men viewers around, made it 14 episodes before crash landing into Hiatus Bay in 2012. F/X, however, did strike gold with the ‘80s-set The Americans in early 2013, and six months later, the still-in-development Catch Fire received a full season pick up. The first season premiered as the first half of the Mad Men finale season ended. (Author’s note: Jesus Christ, AMC, please stop splitting up seasons. We get why; it’s just a really bad viewing experience and clumsy to communicate in written form.) As a lead-out series, Catch Fire kept little more than half the prior week’s ratings, and continued to drop from there. But while Mad Men episodes rarely cracked 3 million viewers, ratings don’t matter. Why not? Cue the next reason you’re not watching the series.
You are a millennial and your income does not exceed $100,000. Several articles have quoted the same story that has no doubt been parroted from board room to Upfront presentations and back. Essentially, Mad Men and its period-show successor, Halt and Catch Fire, index strongly with “upscale-skewing audiences.” This “statistic” does not appear to have a source outside of “AMC says” but it seems plausible, doesn’t it? Two shows, one about an ad agency that aspires to sell high-end automobiles and brand-name sodas, and the other about a tech company that aspires to be first in the personal computing market and get a piece of that crazy ‘80s wealth, would theoretically draw viewers who aspire to similarly luxurious lifestyles via similarly luxurious bank accounts.
Ad buyers certainly took the bait, paying 35% more than the average CPM for a spot in the Mad Men series finale, despite the final season routinely pulling lower ratings than reruns of The Big Bang Theory. If this dubious claim is true, it probably means you’re not watching. Most millennials are more accustomed to seeing five zeroes behind their student loan debt than on a paycheck. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 2% of millennials (ages 18-34) make more than $100,000/year, so it’s a fair bet if you’re not old enough to run for president yet, you’re not watching a show with topical references to Reaganomics. Furthermore…
You are a millennial and this show has no juice on Tumblr. Why would it? When characters fuck up, it’s a tragic or anger-inducing narrative device, not a gaffe. There are no character pairings that would be fun to ship, or raunchy sex scenes that capture well in 20-30 frames. There isn’t even a family pet that comically alleviates some of the weight of what the characters are going through. Each episode contains long stretches of shouting until a character has a revelation of how to resolve this episode’s emotional or code-based quandary. It has secret shame and mental unhinging, but not shocking, like House of Cards, and not high stakes, like Empire, and not British, like Sherlock. So if you haven’t come across it on Tumblr, it’s not surprising. It’s not poorly written; it just doesn’t gif well.
So that’s it. If you’re a Gen-Xer, your excuse list is coming in Part Two, which I will almost maybe definitely possibly write someday. If you made it to the end, please enjoy what is arguably the best part of the show, the opening credit sequence that’s basically a Blade Runner B-side: