Halt and Catch Fire producer explains how new show brings 80s PC race to TV

Series executive producer Jonathan Lisco sees the new show as lens to view our modern tech age and to ask ourselves a few questions.

Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace star in AMC's Halt and Catch Fire
Image: Tina Rowden/AMC

Everyone has an origin - heroes, villains, and the remarkable and unremarkable of varying degrees in between. Regardless of the ending, when the story starts, they're all even.

That's part of the idea behind AMC's new Sunday night drama Halt and Catch Fire.

The show centers around calculating ex-IMBer Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) as he's arrived in Texas at a company called Cardiff Electric. He recruits one of the company's salesmen, a failed computer builder named Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and a rebellious almost-college graduate named Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to help him reverse engineer an IBM computer.

When the audience meets these characters, it's anyone's guess what the PC race of the 1980s will do with them.

"[We're] asking our viewers to think about who's going to be the Wikipedia entry in 2014. Who's going to be the Steve Jobs or the Bill Gates - if any of them - and who instead are going to be the footnotes in that Wikipedia entry - or worse, swept into the trash bin of history," executive producer Jonathan Lisco told TechRepublic.

After all, Steve Jobs was, at one point, just a guy with an idea.

The show comes at a time, from Lisco's perspective, when today's level of connectivity has reached a critical mass and average people's relationship with their technology can border on addiction.

"I think it's a great time to look back at an era when we weren't at all plugged in," he said. He hopes Halt and Catch Fire poses three basic questions:

1. How did we get here?

2. Is this a good place to be?

3. Can we move past this in a way that lends all this connectivity with an enhanced and evolved humanity?

Before the deep diving, though, comes the challenge of creating a fictionalized story that can live seamlessly at a distinct point in time that produced some of the most iconic people and products in recent history.

SEE: Photo preview: AMC's Halt and Catch Fire

For that, Lisco said the Halt and Catch Fire team absorbed everything from Steve Jobs' biography to Robert Cringely's Triumph of the Nerds. That means there's no one-to-one translation between the people and companies on the show, and the ones in real life.

"I think [creators Christopher Rogers and Christopher Cantwell] found the thematic issues interesting on a composite level," Lisco said. So, MacMillan won't be sporting a black turtleneck any time soon.

Aside from capturing the time and culture, Lisco said the show also aims to get the tech right with the help of three advisors who lived through the era:

- Paul Carroll, a professor of mathematics who used to work at AT&T

- Carl Ledbetter, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal who covered PCs for 17 years

- John Cordell, an engineer and coder.

Their presence helps with the issue, since Lisco readily admits, "We're not engineers ourselves. We weren't engineers in the 80s." Relying on the tech advisors allows the writers to be writers.

"We're really trying to not take you out of the emotional narrative by noticing a mistake in the tech," Lisco said.

One of the scenes in the pilot episode where heavier tech meets plot, revolves around MacMillan and Clark spending three days transcribing hexadecimal code.

"That, to us, we joke around in the writer's room, is like the action sequence of Halt and Catch Fire," Lisco said. For the tech-savvy, he said he believes they'll find scenes like that enjoyable. And for lay people, perhaps they'll pick something up every now and then.

"If they believe that our characters understand it, and care about it, then they will care about our characters' journey," he said.

And that journey -- like many in the early PC era -- starts with MacMillan and Clark in a garage.

"All these progenitors of these early ideas were at some level, putting their unique hopes, fears, obsessions, and dysfunctions into the machine that they were building," Lisco said. "We think that's thematically really interesting. At the same time that society benefits from all these wonderful devices, we're also now absorbing all of that psychological history from the people who made it."

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