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The 4 most-adored tech-obsessed TV shows
Can't get enough of technology between 9 and 5? Feel a need to bathe in fictional alternatives of that same technology in your spare time? Join the club! I asked the techiest-techies I know to recommend the TV shows that best represent their lifestyles or the reality of the technology they work with every day.
As it is, we in the computer industry have suffered through more bad than good, more inaccurate than spot on. We wince at the howlingly unrealistic Hollywood portrayals of technology, such as a child stalked by dinosaurs who is excited when she sees that Jurassic Park is controlled by a Unix system—which she can, within 59 seconds, use to save the day and the plot. Pfft! Hollywood.
So, in contrast, this best-of TV fiction list rewards entertainment when its portrayal is pretty darn close to real. That, in fact, is why I chose the top ranked TV show: The premise isn't too much of a stretch to buy into from a technology standpoint. The other TV shows are on this list because they're believable from the perspective of character sketches: Yes, technologists really do talk like that, improve on chance games like that, and get relegated to the basement like that.
This list is admittedly biased toward recent shows. Why? Sure, I love “Star Trek.” But I’m more fascinated by shows that reflect current technology, especially when it’s shown as seeping into our lives in its most dystopian forms.
So, without further ado, these are the technology-laced TV shows that my hive mind thinks you should be watching. Let the countdown begin…
No. 4 Big Bang Theory, CBS
Boy oh boy, does "The Big Bang Theory" pay attention to tech accuracy—a fact much appreciated by technologists. A case in point is the origin story behind the running Rock-Paper-Scissors gag. The new, five-variant version adds the "Poisonous Lizard" and "Spock" moves, thus increasing the number of possible combinations in a two-player game from three to 10. That’s way better chances of avoiding a tie—which is precisely why the game was created in real life by real-life software engineer Sam Kass. He and his wife, technical writer Karen Bryla, invented the game when they dated as undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon, reports Karen Heyman. And, actually, when Sheldon himself explains it, he gives credit to "Internet pioneer Sam Kass, as an improvement on the classic Rock-Paper-Scissors—all hail Sam Kass."
My apologies to Chris Coppoletti, a 3D artist who asked me not to include BBT "unless you’re aiming to critique it in some way," since most of its portrayals are "toxic, surface-level caricature made to be a punch line for a naïve audience." I'm not going to criticize its surface-level caricatures, though Coppoletti has a point: Mensa buddies Leonard and Sheldon, physicists who work at the California Institute of Technology, are a classic representation of people on the autism-Asperger's spectrum, with their cluelessness in basic social situations (particularly when it comes to women).
At any rate, one friend summed up the reason why the series doesn’t offend her: "It's more about quirky personalities and neurodiversity in my opinion than it is about technology." OK. Plus, the show makes a whole lot of tech people a whole lot happy. Easter eggs help the show cater to its tech-savvy audience. For example, every formula written on any whiteboard you see on BBT is an actual scientific formula. Nice.
No. 3 Halt and Catch Fire, AMC
"Halt and Catch Fire" is widely adored. The drama is hailed as a "surprisingly accurate" rendition of the technological milestones of the 1980s, from the rise of the PC to the early beginnings of online gaming with first-person shooter games. It’s like “Mad Men” for techies, where the business is creating new computing technology rather than advertising campaigns.
In describing the show’s first season, analysis site Screen Prism notes that fictional software company Cardiff Electric (based in Texas) is loosely based on Compaq (ditto, based in Texas), best known as the first company to legally reverse-engineer IBM PCs and sell them for substantially less than what Big Blue was charging. (Compaq grew to become the largest supplier of PC systems during the 1990s before being overtaken by HP in 2001. HP acquired Compaq in 2002 and retired the name Compaq in 2013.)
The Compaq parallels pile on. Two characters, Joe MacMillan and Gordon Clark, team up, similar to the team of Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The duo work with engineer Cameron Howe to push Cardiff into becoming a key player in the microcomputer revolution.
If you're a fan of PC history, and if fluffy sitcoms don't cut it for you, you may want to check out "Halt and Catch Fire." Here's what fan Karan Nagarajan wrote about the series on a Quora chat: "While everyone else has chosen to take a very modern and light-hearted approach towards the story of geeks, nerds, and engineers, this is a TV show which actually makes sense when they discuss the technology involved."
Nothing wrong with light-hearted, though! Which brings us to this puff of pure helium…
No. 2 The IT Crowd, Channel 4 (British)
Oh, lord, how we miss you Reynholm Industries, the company that manufactured something or other. Its employees never knew quite what. The comedy TV show, which ran from 2006 to 2013, revolved around three IT department employees who were roundly despised and ignored companywide by their co-workers, who thought the protagonists were a bunch of losers. That includes the magnificent Roy Trenneman, whose support techniques consisted entirely of ignoring the ringing phone, hoping the caller would hang up; droning out the standard-issue help desk troubleshooting advice of "Have you tried turning it off and on again?" and "Is it definitely plugged in?" and/or using reel-to-reel tape recordings to ask those questions for him.
Another employee consigned to the basement-level depths of Mordor (a.k.a. the IT department) was Jen Barber, the department head/"relationship manager" who knows nothing about IT but tries to pretend otherwise and is convinced by her co-workers that the Internet resides in a shoebox. There's also the IT technician Richmond Avenal, a well-meaning goth who appears after Barber unadvisedly lets him out of the server room to which he's been banished for heaven knows how long.
At a recent party, a small clutch of overworked, under-appreciated, underpaid help desk staffers told me this was their favorite TV show because "it's the closest there is to reality."
No. 1 Mr. Robot, USA Network
Naked Security, the information security-focused site run by British infosec company Sophos, doesn't review a whole lot of TV shows. "Mr. Robot" is a clear exception. Naked Security writers regularly do episode recaps to analyze how technically sound the show is, and the answer from the get-go is consistently "very much so."
Naked Security's John Zorabedian started it off with a technical analysis of the pilot episode, in which we're introduced to the main character, Elliot, a cybersecurity engineer who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Elliot nonchalantly tells a café owner, Ron, that he hacked the cafe’s Wi-Fi and discovered Ron’s stash of child pornography. Elliot explains that Tor hasn't guaranteed Ron's privacy. In fact, Elliot says, “Whoever controls the exit nodes controls the traffic.” That's "our first indication that the show has a good grasp of technical details," Zorabedian notes.
The show keeps up its fidelity to accuracy, pleasing cryptographers and other technophiles to no end. One example: Following a hacktivist group's attempt to destroy all debt records by encrypting the financial data of the largest conglomerate in the world, E Corp., the third-season finale has a mega plot twist that involves steganography, Greek for “hidden writing.” It's the practice of concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file, message, image, or video so that it's hiding in plain sight. As Wired reports, hackers love steganography: They're increasingly using it to smuggle malicious payloads past security scanners and firewalls. I won't give away the nature of the hidden data or where it's hiding, but it's a forehead-slapper.
In short, "Mr. Robot" speaks technology as a native-born. Hats off to its writers and production team. It's good enough to impress people whose lives revolve around this stuff.
Be kind, rewind
Don't shoot the messenger. As I said, this is a biased list. But if enough people form a social media mob to sic insect drones on me, we might have to revisit the issue and come up with a "How could you leave out [fill in the blank]?!" follow-up listicle. In that spirit, here are the other shows my sources mentioned, in no particular order:
- Silicon Valley, HBO
- Black Mirror, started on BBC Channel 4, now on Netflix
- Person of Interest, CBS
- Scorpion, CBS
- MacGyver, CBS
- Max Headroom, Channel 4
- Altered Carbon, Netflix
- Westworld, HBO
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.