If you tune in to AMC Sunday night at 10/9c, you'll find a period piece starring a handsome, well-dressed man who, despite having the confidence and silver tongue to sell almost anything, is running from his complicated past. And no, we're not talking about Mad Men or Don Draper.
The show in question is Halt and Catch Fire, a drama set in the "Silicon Prairie" of Dallas, Texas in 1983 that tells the story of the race to build the best personal computer. And while the surface comparisons to Mad Men may be incidental, it's no surprise that AMC would be looking to recapture some of that show's magic as the network prepares to reboot itself after saying goodbye to its cornerstone property next year.
"More than anything, we talk about doing what got us to the dance," AMC president Charlie Collier told TVGuide.com back in January while speaking of upcoming projects, including Halt and Catch Fire. Added Executive Vice President of Original Programming Joel Stillerman: "Shows that just a handful of networks in the business would even entertain are much more the bread and butter of what we're doing. The game is to be eclectic by design and look for the great visionaries who we can empower to do their passion projects and big original ideas."
With Halt and Catch Fire, AMC got just that. In fact, creators Christopher C. Rogers and Christopher Cantwell originally wrote the pilot as a staffing sample. "We were in the delightful vacuum of, 'You don't have to think about selling it, it doesn't have to be commercial; just write something you love," Rogers tells TVGuide.com. "Chris Cantwell's dad worked in computers in Texas in the '80s, so that was a world we were aware of. Then, we found the reverse engineering story. The reason it's, 'Do you have a Mac or a PC?' not, 'Do you have a Mac or an IBM?' is because there were all these little Davids that took down that big Goliath. At this moment in time that we really didn't know about, it seemed IBM was going to rule the world. Any time you're telling a historical story, if you can enter it from... the history you're unfamiliar with, then that's really kind of the pay dirt dramatically."
Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillan, a former IBM salesman who, after abandoning the company under mysterious circumstances, resurfaces in Dallas, where he meets college student programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and sweet-talks his way into a job at Cardiff Electric, a tech company run by old-school businessman John Bosworth (Toby Huss). At Cardiff, Joe quickly sets his sights on Gordon Clark (Argo's Scoot McNairy) an engineer who's been sleepwalking through life ever since he and his wife Donna (Kerry Bishe) built their own computer that failed disastrously during its big demo.
Although Joe sees the potential in Gordon, he remains unsure if he can shake him from his burned-out stupor. "Joe wants to work with winners," Pace says. "Joe wants to be a winner and he wants to be working with winners, and it's a constant source of conflict that he might have picked the wrong guy." However, when Joe asks Gordon to (illegally) reverse-engineer an IBM PC one weekend in his garage, Gordon once again comes to life. Their test is a success — right up until the moment IBM finds out and sues Joe, Gordon and Cardiff Electric. The twist: Joe is the one who tells IBM what he's done as part of his master plan to force Bosworth into actually building a new PC.
"He is definitely the type of fireman that also started the fire," Rogers says of Joe. "We're very interested in exploring with all these characters, but Joe in particular, the fine line between being a visionary, being crazy and being a fraud. Joe is somebody that walks that line. As with a lot of the great visionaries in this industry, on certain days you're going to call the force of personality vision or leadership. And on other days, you're going to say this guy is incorrigible and can't be convinced to go in the right direction. Joe is convinced he is right. He thinks he has seen the future, and he is going to take people there with him whether they like it or not."
Indeed, Joe's manipulative qualities are what initially spoke to Pace, but he argues that his character isn't an anti-hero. "I wrote some notes on the back of the script when I first read it," Pace says. "I remember finding him to be a real sociopath in that first read — that he was about anarchy and... breaking the rules. I found all of that really, really exciting, but then I read the script again and again, and I was like, 'Actually, he just wants to make a great computer.' Really, it's about making this tool, putting it out there and convincing people to buy it because they don't know they need it yet. They don't know how it's going to transform their lives when this technology is working in their favor."
Adds Cantwell: "Our characters have an innocence to them. What they're building is not a meth empire or a bootlegging empire. There's a brightness to it, even if they are selfish and manipulative and ego-driven and maniacal in some ways, Yes, Joe will do anything and he'll use anybody he needs to, but... he's a computer with bugs. He is a human being and we want to see what is at the core of him."
Although Joe's bugs are only hinted at in the pilot, expect them to be fully explored as the season goes along. "He's not going to just be an opaque cipher," Cantwell says. "What does it look like when Joe finds warmth? What does it look like when Joe begins to question himself and look in the mirror and ask himself, 'Am I a fraud? Am I just a con man? Am I an also-ran? Am I somebody who's going to be a footnote in history? Am I not the visionary I think I am?' All of those questions are something we want to explore, and it will absolutely involve things that have happened to him in the past, but it'll also involve the things he's going through in the present. The more he kind of goes through this baptism of fire with the other characters, the more we're going to peel him like an onion."
But Joe isn't the only character with issues. And according to executive producer Jonathan Lisco, each character's unique set of circumstances will impact not only their interactions with one another, but also the machine they're building. "It's been said of Mark Zuckerberg that he basically created Facebook because couldn't get a date. If you look at it through that lens, basically Facebook was created because a guy had a certain psychopathology that he wanted to correct for," Lisco says. "Similarly, our characters are going to bake their unique hopes, dreams, neuroses and psychopathologies into the machine that they're building. It's going to become a reflection of all that messy stuff."
And at times, that excess baggage will threaten the entire enterprise, which gives the show's title — a computer code that causes the machine to stop operating — an added metaphor. "If they stop, they catch fire, so to speak, but also if they run too fast," Lisco says. "They're damned if they do because then they have all the risks inherent in trying to be great. They're damned if they don't, because then they'll be people who will have so many regrets in life for never trying. So, they can't help but tumble forward.
"I look at the show as an origin story," Lisco continues. "We're looking at all of these people wondering who's going to be the Wikipedia entry in 2012, and who's going to be the footnote to that entry, forgotten by history? All of these people want to be the Wikipedia entry for their own reasons, and we're certainly going to dramatize their ups and downs. It's going to have some serious impact on them mentally and psychologically."
Fortunately for Joe, his enlightenment might come sooner than it did for Mad Men's Don Draper. "The Joe we meet in the pilot would like to believe that he won't have to give entirely of himself to do what he has to do," Rogers says. "But I think his journey over the course of the season is going to be realizing that you can sell people and get people onboard, but you have to make people love you and you have to engage with people on a personal level if you really hope to keep them and to move forward. Joe is definitely a machine with serious bugs, and to work those out, he's going to have to engage in ways he never could have imagined."
Halt and Catch Fire premieres Sunday at 10/9c on AMC. Will you watch?Check out the video below to find out why the show is our editors' pick.