Stream yourself a very techie Christmas
E&T's US correspondent recommends two outstanding TV series that offer a respite from the saccharine Yuletide schedules.
It’s been a strong year for technology and science fiction on TV.
Westworld (Sky Atlantic) arrived amid much hype and just about lived up to it. The Man in the High Castle posted a greatly improved second season on Amazon. Mr Robot (Amazon Prime) initially wobbled to match the greatness of its first season but ultimately got back on track. Netflix’s Stranger Things was not just as good an homage to '80s movies as you could wish for but also both deeply engaging and moving. And the peerless Charlie Brooker received a $40m Netflix investment for a third sequence of Black Mirror cautionary tales that nevertheless remained as dyspeptically British as its predecessors on Channel 4.
There are enough hours there to fill up a year’s worth of goggleboxing for most of us, never mind some escape from stodgy Christmas broadcasting. But if you're seeking a Yuletide box set, why not go for something a little more, well, authentic? Two US series completed their third seasons last year that don’t get as much attention in the UK as they deserve.
Second place on my 2016 watch list goes to Halt and Catch Fire (as in the ‘HCF’ command to stop a processor). In America too, it has never quite shaken off initial hype as AMC’s 1980s answer to its earlier hit Mad Men. But right from the start, HCF has been a very different beast.
Starting in Texas with the PC revolution in the mid-eighties and having now reached Silicon Valley and the beginnings of the World Wide Web, it is a reflection – if not a precise retelling – of the beginnings of the digital age. As such, many of its themes (reverse engineering, women in technology, start-up disruption vs multinational and more) are as much about where we are now as back then.
Like Mad Men, the writing is excellent and HCF revolves around an equally good ensemble, but it seamlessly combines a number of genres. It’s part-thriller (certainly at its outset), part character study, part corporate drama, part history lesson. It is also a maddening show to write about, given that you have to assume that virtually nobody has seen it. Cliffhangers and shocks abound and therefore so does the risk of spoilers.
So take this one on trust. It’s The Wire for nerds, a show you will only pick up on after it has finished (and there's just one season left), then find it has been reaching towards greatness for years. In the UK, HCF is available in its entirety on Amazon.
In first place remains the brilliant Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s satire of the US technology industry today. Although is ‘satire’ the right word?
By unrolling this tale of the Pied Piper start-up’s battle against the behemoth of Hooli in an almost non-stop stream of the bluest humour, Judge gets away with retelling slices of actual Valley lore that would be legally actionable were they tied to the real companies whispered around them in San Jose’s bars and restaurants (and sometimes, believe me, boardrooms).
It is an irony that while the real Silicon Valley has largely done away with ‘watercooler’ TV – “P’ah, who watches anything live these days?” – Silicon Valley is the show its subjects, be they engineers or CEOs, make an appointment to view as soon as it airs. Otherwise, you can’t join the cubicle snickering at that newly-skewered rival on Monday morning.
These guys do their research, even inviting the likes of former Twitter CEO Don Costolo to the writers’ room, while also reaching much further down the food chain for inspiration.
After two excellent seasons, Silicon Valley returned for its third even more strongly. In part, that’s because the dominant strand is at last the product launch of Pied Piper’s supposedly revolutionary compression algorithm – those who have (wrongly) quibbled the programme’s earlier focus on venture capitalism can breathe a little easier.
Again, let’s avoid specific plot points. Still this is a season to savour because it insists on ‘sticking to the script’. Anyone working in the business will see where characters and companies are about to come a cropper from a mile off, but that’s the point: Silicon Valley isn’t that much of an exaggeration of how things really work.
Similarly, be careful who (or what) you root for? Judge and his writing team have already been careful to give almost all of their central characters some huge flaws – it’s another joy of the show that everyone can recognise ‘someone else’ they work with in the cast but generally not themselves – but now takes that a step further. For example, some figures you are slyly encouraged to dislike get strange kinds of vindication by the last episode, sometimes before it.
Best of all, though, things end on a note that shows Silicon Valley still has plenty of mileage in it – indeed, it’s hardly scratched the surface.
Silicon Valley is currently available in the UK on Amazon, though may also soon resurface on Sky Go.