Sometimes, the thing you thought you were ready to give up on returns to glory and it's just as great as you remember.
That's what happened with "Mr. Robot," a TV drama on the USA Network that had its first darkly hypnotic and techno-thrilling season last year. The show, about a brilliant and emotionally damaged hacker who falls in with an Anonymous-like hacker collective, in its second season doubled down on striking visuals and internal conflict for its lead character Elliott (played by an ever-watchable Rami Malek).
But where Season One was about the scary power those who can tap into your information can wield and the anticipation leading up to a major act of financial terrorism, Season Two has felt at times disconnected. As it began heading into the last third of its 12 episode second season, the show began to feel like a buggy 2.0 version of its former self. "Mr. Robot," which debuted at South by Southwest last year, was a show that tapped into our deepest fears about big data, our loss of online privacy and the murky ethics of those who can crash through our digital gates. It was scary and bold, beautiful and thought-provoking last year.
Not so much in Season Two, as "Mr. Robot" became an exercise in overlong scenes (and 70+-minute episodes) too in love with its own patchwork dialogue and its (admittedly exquisite) musical montages.
Where was the show I fell in love with about hackers and exploits, backdoors and command-line prompts? The show had a golden opportunity to explore the aftermath of a crippling international hack, but has only skirted around the topic with vague intimations of a crumbling New York City infrastructure and cleverly edited news clips featuring President Barack Obama and Edward Snowden.
Wednesday night's episode, "Successor," however, won me back in a big way. It took a big risk by leaving out its main character entirely and focusing on the falling-apart hacker group "fsociety," which is being tracked by the FBI and led by Darlene (Carly Chaikin), who makes a life-and-death decision that changes the stakes of the show.
There was email hacking, surreptitious surveillance, a creepy video distributed online to the masses and a played-for-laughs coffee shop debate about Android versus Apple phones. Where has this show been all season? We who believe tech is as deep a cultural force as music, film and politics, have really needed it.
If "Mr. Robot" has at its best been a dark parade of hacker subcultures and online identity, AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire," which returned Tuesday night for a third season, points us back to where this all started.
What began as a show about PC clone makers in Dallas made a major course-adjustment in its second season to become a much more interesting series about the early days of online gaming, chat rooms, anti-virus software and women in the tech industry.
If you had trouble getting through the first season (it was a slow slog), you should give "Halt" another chance, starting from Season Two. This new season continues the show's focus on programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and entrepreneur Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) as they try to grow their online gaming startup Mutiny.
The show moves its setting from Texas to Silicon Valley, and the culture clash that ensues in this new season is delightfully infuriating and timely. The show has turned its annoying, smug visionary character Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) into a Steve Jobs stand-in (with some John McAfee thrown in) and somehow it doesn't feel like a micro-sized TV version of the biopic "Jobs."
What "Halt and Catch Fire" does in looking back at tech in the '80s that "Mr. Robot" can't and doesn't do in looking at the present and future, is offer hope and optimism. There are dark moments in "Halt" — characters have affairs, business owners are double-crossed, parenting goes awry — but the technology in the show is often treated with wonder. Higher-baud modem upgrades are cause for celebration, the booting up of a mainframe computer is enough reason to throw a party and the prospect of being part of the wave of whatever's next in tech is dizzying for these characters.
Some of it is on the nose, pointing a little too knowingly at future tech issues, as when Cameron finds out the very human consequences of snooping in on the private chats of her users.
But what "Halt and Catch Fire" gets right is the excitement of knowing exactly what the future is about to bring and trying to catch it in a bottle instead of ducking for cover in fear.
"Mr. Robot" is cautionary drama, as I imagine next month's Oliver Stone movie "Snowden" will be, and if you want to really get depressed about where tech has taken us, check out "Catfish" on MTV, where online predators shift their identity to fool others into giving up cash or falling in (virtual) love.
"Halt and Catch Fire" isn't a feel-good show, exactly, but in the way it is warmly nostalgic about the humble computer sprite or the bygone computer processor Megahertz race, it hits the tech-culture sweet spot.