As TV pitches go, AMC's new prestige series Halt and Catch Fire wasn't an obvious home run. On its face, the show is a period drama set in Dallas in 1983, about characters at a small tech company trying to reverse-engineer an IBM PC to sell as their own.
"The cloning of a PC doesn't immediately blow everyone's hair back as a genius idea for a show," admits Jonathan Lisco, Halt's showrunner. But for Lisco, who previously helmed TNT's vastly underrated Southland, and Halt's co-creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers, the show isn't really about computers.
"The bits and bytes, that's the scaffold off which we're going to hang all sorts of interesting inquiries about people," says Lisco. "'What's the thin line separating genius from delusion?' 'Let's look at the destructive power of ambition.'"
Halt and Catch Fire — named for the programming code that causes a computer to shut down — is Cantwell and Rogers' first network-TV project. The pair met while developing online content for Disney. Cantwell says they looked at the ubiquity of technology today and "wanted to tell a story of how we got here. That led us to the dawn of the personal computer. Everybody is familiar with the rise of Silicon Valley. We became interested in this area in Texas known as the Silicon Prairie, which people aren't as familiar with: Texas Instruments, Charles Tandy, Michael Dell building computers in his dorm."
Cantwell also brought firsthand knowledge of the early years of the tech revolution. His father worked as a computer salesman in Dallas during the Eighties. "It was a crazy industry that changed day-to-day, and my dad brought all that stress home," says Cantwell. "I have vivid memories of going to work with him. They'd send the sales guy out on calls with an engineer to explain the nuts and bolts. They'd have to figure out how to work together even though they spoke different languages."
That odd-couple dynamic is mirrored in Halt's two protagonists, hard-driving salesman Joe MacMillan, and brilliant engineer Gordon Clark. Lee Pace, who plays MacMillan, based his character on real-world figures. "I looked at Steve Jobs, but also at the corporate raiders of the Eighties like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken," says Pace. "They're coming in and changing the rules."
Halt debuts the week after Mad Men's midseason finale, which creates lofty expectations. "It'd be a lie to say we don't feel external pressures," says Lisco. "We exist in this microcosm of our own tensions and fears, just like the protagonists of Halt. They were grasping at an unknowable future with this strong sense that their invention had an equal chance of changing the world or ending up junk."