Four months ago, while holed up in a stark Studio City office building, a team of six writers was completing the season finale script of what AMC hopes will be its baton-carrying new drama, "Halt and Catch Fire."
The series, with a confounding title taken from computer code terminology, is set during the 1980s in Texas' Silicon Prairie -- the drab, often overlooked stepsister to Silicon Valley -- just as the age of the personal computer is about to dawn. At its center is a rebel technology team that dares to challenge the reigning business-computer giant, IBM.
Lee Pace (of "Pushing Daisies" and "The Hobbit") plays Joe MacMillan, a former IBM executive who enlists the help of engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy of "Argo"), whose thwarted ambitions have led him to alcoholism, and female tech prodigy Cameron Howe (MacKenzie Davis of "Smash"), who's risking her future to join the endeavor.
A made-up mix
The show portrays a cut-throat tech world with way more grit than HBO's "Silicon Valley." And today's high-tech community is buzzing about which company or figure -- Texas Instruments, Compaq, Michael Dell? -- served as the basis for the story. (Its creators say it's a fictional amalgamation.)
Clearly, TV producers have decided those driving the computer era forward are worth exploring. Bravo tried that, unsuccessfully, with 2012's "Start-Ups: Silicon Valley," which looked at a group of 20-something Internet entrepreneurs. Steven Bochco is doing a Silicon Valley crime show for TNT. And the recently launched comedy "Silicon Valley" has garnered praise from critics.
"Halt and Catch Fire" premiered June 1, a week after "Mad Men" wrapped the first half of its final season. AMC President Charlie Collier claims the new show is "the most fun you'll have watching people build computers." He says, "The first days of anything are often inelegant, (but) ... we all know the fruits of these pioneers' labor, (which) have become so meaningful in our lives."
The show was created by newcomers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, whose desire to tell a men-under-pressure story led them to the PC-era subject matter. "Were people just copying ideas, or were they visionaries themselves?" says Cantwell. "We hear so much about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, but who were the people in the shadow? There was so much borrowing of ideas in this fast-paced industry at the time, and that was fascinating to us."
Those Texas guys
Rogers adds, "In the age of Microsoft and Apple, it's impossible to imagine there was a moment when IBM was the presumptive winner of (the digital technology race), that there was a whole other tech world outside Silicon Valley. We wanted to ... show that these guys in Texas were doing something that was relevant to, and of a piece with, the iPods we're all carrying around now."
Cantwell and Rogers had worked previously on the marketing team at the Walt Disney Co. They started writing "Halt and Catch Fire" with the intention of moving into positions on a TV writing staff.
"The first writers room we walked into was our own," Cantwell says, recalling an email from the pair's agent, which said, "We probably can't sell this, but it's cool."
Helping the neophytes shepherd the series is Jonathan Lisco ("Southland"), who serves as show runner and an executive producer. Writing staff members Jason Cahill, Dahvi Waller, Zack Whedon and Jamie Pachino hail from hit shows such as "Breaking Bad," "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men."
Can it last?
Lisco initially questioned the show's potential for longevity. "When I read the first script, I wasn't sure if we could do 50 more," he says. "The cloning of a PC doesn't immediately grab you by the lapels. "But I think viewers ... will find there are more high stakes and more drama than is readily seen."
To bone up on the tech scene of the '80s, the staff read Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine" and the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, and watched documentaries such as Robert X. Cringely's "Triumph of the Nerds." While their own focus was on making the story line gripping, they relied on consultants such as Carl Ledbetter, who had worked at IBM and AT&T, for guidance on its arc and details.
The idea that led the creative team through the first 10 segments was voiced by central character Joe MacMillan in the first episode: "Computers aren't the thing. They are the thing that gets us to the thing."