Critic's Choice

TV Pick: The human drama at the heart of that other Silicon Valley show, 'Halt and Catch Fire'

"Halt and Catch Fire" (AMC, Tuesdays). Not the most discussed cable drama, perhaps, but one I watch out of interest and not out of duty, "Halt and Catch Fire" is back for a third season this week. It's a welcome reminder that you don't need to pour on the sex, violence or sexual violence to make a story compelling.

A 1980s tale of the wildcatting days of personal computing and network connectivity, the series set its first two seasons in Texas, surprisingly but not ahistorically. (Remember the Dallas-based Texas Instruments and the Forth Worth-based Tandy.) The new year finds the five industrious principals — computer-savvy couple Gordon and Donna Clark (Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé), hotshot coder Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), hucksterish visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Toby Huss (Artie the World's Strongest Man on "The Adventures of Pete and Pete," I will always mention) as John Broadman, the business end — relocated to California to muck in alongside the Silicon Valley colonists and venture capitalists. (New kid Annabeth Gish's Diane Gould is the personification of that money.) They have had a hand in hardware and in software, video games and chat rooms, and this year, someone might be about to invent online shopping.

After two seasons of near-constant professional and personal crises, the characters have moved on beyond the original suggestion of Gordon and Joe as vague stand-ins for Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Donna and Cameron are the partners at the center of the story now, while Gordon, who may be suffering from some sort of something or other, it is quickly suggested, is their mainframe maintenance man and the wrangler of the smart but stupid young folks who staff Mutiny, their mission-fluid, upstart, underdog tech company.

Joe, invisible for the first half of the opening episode, has morphed into a bespectacled, bearded online security guru who may have dated Madonna, cultivates a mystical air and throws parties full of Mylar balloons and drug-sniffing strangers in a slick pad overlooking a green-screen San Francisco not yet ruined by search engine and social media money.

They are all ambitious, but also in their way pure — that is, distinct from some other characters who are just looking for a payday. And if that is a bit of cheat, so be it.

But that’s also beside the point. Notwithstanding the contemporary window dressing and name-dropping — the occasional air is "Mad Men" but with computers in the '80s — “Halt and Catch Fire” is at bottom a show about how people living and working at close quarters struggle to communicate with their collaborators, their family and their friends, to the extent any of them have friends. Indeed, whether Gordon and Joe were friends or partners at one point becomes an actual legal question in one scene, and one that Gordon can't answer. It’s about loneliness (I suppose “Mad Men” was a show about loneliness as well), which is what makes it moving to me, and the possibility of connection is what makes it exciting.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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