American cable television drama has a music problem. Increasingly, the raison d’etre for such drama seems to be to provide visual wallpaper for music from the great American songbook, which pre-dates the music video.
Look at — and listen to — David Simon’s recent series Show Me a Hero, which is seemingly an excuse to give Bruce Springsteen songs a convoluted New York State backdrop, albeit in Yonkers, across the Hudson River from Bruce’s New Jersey.
Previously, Simon made his series Treme with New Orleans’ distinctive jazz at its narrative and aural core. The southern country music of Waylon Jennings, Lucinda Williams et al was prominent in True Detective, and the songs of Bob Dylan pop up as an irregular feature in a number of recent cable drama series, including recently (and I felt improbably) Masters of Sex.
It’s not always bad. Matthew Weiner used music wonderfully in Mad Men, even if that final Coke song left us befuddled. And the rendition of Zou Bisou Bisou by Jessica Pare’s Megan in the opening episode of season five was TV music perfection.
The music mess came to mind while devouring Halt and Catch Fire because this new series, which filled Mad Men’s timeslot for the AMC channel in the US, has its own music problem.
It is set in the emerging computer industry in Texas in 1983, suggesting it required electronic music, for which America was not known in the early 1980s.
So what do they play? Boz Scaggs, of course. Admittedly, that made sense in an early scene where Gordon, a timid programmer played by Scoot McNairy has a moment of freedom in his car.
But it took this dense series until its third episode to roll out a Gary Numan song and give the impression it was worth staying with. Apparently it turns into something better in its second season (now airing on Foxtel); its first series feels like a big tease.
Halt and Catch Fire looks and feels the part, but its narrative doesn’t deliver the episodic blows or pay-offs you would hope for.
Superficially, it bears some resemblance to Mad Men in that it is a period drama about a distinctly American business era and features exacting production design, a sharp visual style and strong lead performances.
Indeed, Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a former IBM salesman who almost demolishes a small Dallas electronics company with his ambitious plan to take on IBM with a better PC, feels a lot like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper.
There’s enough in Halt and Catch Fire to like, particularly the prospect that it will improve, and provide stronger female characters, in subsequent series.
Yet series one lacks the big moment or the big metaphors to give it depth beyond its technical acuity. Which is the story of coding, I suppose, minus the music.