Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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Tuesday

6

September 2016

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Halt and Catch Fire and the Art of Adaptation

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Halt and Catch Fire should have been, at least in theory, a Joe McMillan problem. He started off as the show’s unquestionable lead, and now finds himself often competing with John Bosworth for relevance in the main plotline, acting as little more than an occasional thorn in Mutiny’s side. This really shouldn’t work, especially with a talent like Lee Pace, who dominates every scene he’s in whether he’s trying to or not.

But it does.

Halt has mastered the art of the slow burn. It redefines what pacing means to a cable length season, delivering payoffs when they’re ready rather than when the viewer may normally expect them. I’d say it shouldn’t be too surprising that the show struggles to maintain acceptable ratings, except the popularity of Mr. Robot, another show that frequently challenges the viewer to keep up with its narrative, shows that the world might in fact be ready to embrace television that truly pushes the envelope.

Season two’s refocusing on Cameron and Donna could be seen as a way to keep the show fresh. Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé have a natural chemistry, but who would expect the show to commit to it over keeping Pace at the forefront of the narrative? Who would expect the show to keep John Bosworth around as a character after his incarceration in season one? Television is littered with actors who make their marks and move on to other shows.

Halt has the special ability to actually comprehend its own strengths. No one would have been surprised if Toby Huss hadn’t returned. No one would have been surprised if season two hadn’t reunited the Joe, Gordon, and Cameron brain trust. People may have even wanted that. Halt knows that it doesn’t have a weak link in the cast and employs them in a manner that actually serves to benefit the plot.

We saw this immediately into season three, which chose not to put too much focus on its change in location. Instead, it got right down to the plot. I thought about holding off on doing a Halt article until the season ended, as I am with Mr. Robot. The difference between the two is that Mr. Robot’s chaotic approach is integral to the plot. Halt isn’t trying to play mind games with its viewers, but it still manages to redefine the way we think about how television is supposed to work. Most shows outside of CBS’ procedural lineup have three dimensional characters. Halt excels not only in utilizing its entire cast, but also in constantly redefining its characters’ relations to each other.

I don’t know how Zen MacMillian Utility Joe is going to compare to Cardiff Joe or Westgroup Joe. I don’t know how Mutiny is going to function outside of that decrepit frat house. Part of TV’s fundamental appeal is the familiarity it offers. We tune in week after week to see people we know and care about, even though they’re not real. Halt succeeds in its ability to constantly challenge the notion of familiarity. We, the viewer, have no idea what’s going to happen or even who it’s going to happen to. If the past two seasons have taught us anything, it’s that Halt knows how to pull off the payoff. I don’t need to see the rest of the season to say that with confidence.

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Tuesday

5

April 2016

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Halt and Catch Fire Redefines the Second Season Shake-up

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Sophomore slumps are fairly common in television both with good shows and not so good ones. It makes sense if you think about how much more time is fundamentally spent creating a first season than every subsequent one. After all, the first season is the one that determines if a show exists at all. No network would order a show that didn’t at least sound good until season four.

When Halt and Catch Fires second season started off with the main cast splintered off in four different directions, I couldn’t help but feel like this was familiar territory. It’s hardly uncommon for TV shows to separate their casts during finales, only to reunite them a few episodes into the following season. As season two progressed, I realized that bringing back the status quo wasn’t something HaCF particularly cared about. The cast stayed apart and the results were shocking. The show upped the ante and quietly became one of the best on television.

Much like the tech industry itself, HaCF is a show that’s constantly changing as it figures out what it’s supposed to be. Season one was completely powered by the trio of Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, and Mackenzie Davis, with the cast mostly serving as interesting supplementary parts. Three episodes into season two, I found myself wondering why Toby Huss, who portrays former Cardiff executive John Bosworth, was still on the show. It’s not uncommon for characters to linger after they’ve served their purpose, which is how Bosworth usually looked hanging around the Mutiny headquarters. While he wasn’t given much screen time, Huss took every minute he was given and turned his character’s arc into perhaps the most heartfelt story of season two.

HaCF took a big risk in sidelining its lead actor for the majority of the season. Season one was about building the Giant. Season two was about Mutiny and for the most part, Joe McMillan had little to do with it. He didn’t have much to do at all besides clash with his stepfather, played by James Cromwell in a subtle yet powerful performance. As someone who first checked out the show because of Pace’s involvement, I was surprised at how okay I was with his backseat role in the season.

Season two belongs to MacKenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé. Start-ups are chaotic and long hours often lead to short fuses. In Mutiny’s case, the fuses were short with both the characters and their office space, a cramped frat house filled with twenty-something programmers.

While season one had a fairly linear arc, season two was more of a blend. The characters took the front seat and rolled with it, allowing the chaos to heighten the viewer’s experience. HaCF is the perfect binge show because the lines between episodes become blurred to the point where you really don’t want to stop watching when the credits roll. Ten episode seasons make it easier to have almost no filler, a formula that AMC has also used for Better Call Saul.

Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, HaCF has a significantly smaller following than Saul. Strong critical support gave the show a third season, which could very well be the last if ratings don’t improve. That would be quite a shame as HaCF is one of the most original and entertaining shows on TV. Season two was a masterpiece and even if future seasons take a step back, they’ll still be better than the vast majority of what’s currently on the air.

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Sunday

30

November 2014

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Should The Walking Dead Revisit Its Seasonal Episode Count?

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

The Walking Dead will air its “season finale” tonight. The quotation marks are there to highlight the somewhat grey area surrounding that phrase. While the show comes back in February, AMC is advertising this as a finale and past seasons have showed us that this show puts more stock in providing a noteworthy midseason break than many other shows that use the same practice.

The rationale behind splitting up a season into two parts is clear. It’s a common way for cable shows to expand their episode counts beyond the standard thirteen. In the case of The Walking Dead, it also allows the show to keep plotlines fresh. Season two was the only one to use a thirteen-episode model. The group’s elongated stay at Herschel’s farm provided plenty of reasons why this isn’t the greatest idea.

Problem is that the show has changed quite a bit since then beyond just the cast changes, though it’s worth noting that only seven of the characters from season two are still alive. This isn’t a show where the characters stay in one place for very long anymore. It’s also followed Lost’s later season model in keeping its ensemble cast separated into groups for large periods of time.

This makes splitting up the seasons into eight episode blocks problematic. There is a ton of stuff going on and its happening to tons of characters. Remember how little screen time T-Dog and Beth got back when everyone was just hanging out on the farm? The cast has grown exponentially since then while the death count has slowed down, leaving the show with the task of figuring out what to do with all its characters.

The simple answer? Expand the episode count to twenty.

This is neither unprecedented nor ridiculous in nature. The SyFy Channel’s old Sci-Fi Friday block of Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Battlestar Galactica used this model to great success. None of these shows were quite the phenomenon that The Walking Dead is either. This show is AMC’s cash cow, especially with Breaking Bad over and Mad Men on its way out. There’s nothing really standing in the way of more episodes.

You can make the argument that The Walking Dead is the most popular cable show of all time. Its ratings crush most of what’s on network TV and that doesn’t take in harder to quantify numbers like Twitter traffic and Netflix views. It may not be a contender in many awards shows, but it has what matters most, the interest of the people.

We can use the critical complaints to examine why a switch would be a good idea from a storyline perspective. Splitting up the season the way The Walking Dead does creates the need for an extra finale and primer, which also affects episode progression. The constant rise/fall dynamic makes for great suspense and anticipation, but it also takes precious screen time away from advancing the plot. This problem is exacerbated by extreme character centric episodes that leave out the bulk of the cast.

Which is probably the point. Urgency exists mostly in the eyes of the characters. For the show itself, it’s not really headed in a specific direction. Since the prison, the characters have been roaming, but so has the plot. That’s really all it can do.

If you look at the last three eight episode blocks, you see a pattern. The first episode wraps up the cliffhanger and there’s at least two episodes dedicated to very specific character studies that leave out the majority of the cast. Excluding the finale, that leaves four episodes to get the plot forward before it needs to blow things up again (sometimes literally). For a show with such a large cast, that’s not enough time at all.

Expanding the episode count would make Beth or Governor centric type episodes easier to stomach. Its easy to see why the show likes these types of episodes, but this isn’t the type of show that can afford to toss episodes away on non-essential characters. Adding more episodes lets the show have its cake and eat it too, with plenty of filler.

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