AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” a 10-episode drama about the dawn of the personal computing revolution premiering Sunday (June 1), previewed its pilot for an audience of techies at South by Southwest in March.
It was a swing for the fences, and it connected big.
None other than Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak moderated the post-screening panel. An article at TheNextWeb says he praised the show’s accuracy and look and said, “I give this show a 10, and that’s so rare for me.”
“We did nothing that I know of to get the thumbs-up from the Woz,” executive producer Jonathan Lisco (“Southland”) tells Zap2it. “The Woz came in as an invited guest to moderate this panel at South by Southwest. I spent 30 minutes with him behind stage.
“Then he came on, and he asked a bunch of great questions. By the time it was over, of his own accord, at least in my perception, he said, ‘I love this show.’ We were obviously elated by that. I think he embraces the show, both at the concrete level of plot — because it hearkens back, for him, to some of his salad days — but I also think he finds the themes authentic and very richly portrayed.
“At least that’s what I hope it is.”
Set about one year after IBM introduced its PC (which was in 1981), “Halt and Catch Fire” takes its title a phrase that refers to several machine code instructions that cause computers to shut down; the “catch fire” is meant as a joke.
It stars Lee Pace (“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”) as Joe MacMillan, an IBM sales executive who pulls a mysterious vanishing act.
He pops up at Cardiff Electric in Texas, where he talks his way past boss John Bosworth (Toby Huss) and then enlists the help of frustrated genius engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) to reverse-engineer IBM’s processor and create a PC clone.
Caught legally between IBM and a hard place, Bosworth has to back MacMillan’s play. MacMillan then recruits maverick programming prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) to help complete the project.
Along with his enigmatic disappearance, MacMillan also has a fierce internal drive, combined with a certain amount of charisma, but less than his share of personal charm. According to Lisco, resemblances to Steve Jobs are mostly coincidental.
“[Co-creator] Chris Cantwell’s father was a salesman related to this business. [Cantwell and co-creator Chris Rogers] both had a very organic interest in doing something set during this time, which would in some way be a fictionalized account of the genesis of the personal computing business,” Lisco says.
“We didn’t choose to biographize a specific character. Actually it’s kind of wonderful, because that way we get to use fiction to illuminate, we hope, a deeper truth and create very specific characters, which allows us to have a lot of fun.”
For Pace, last seen on TV playing gentle pie maker Ned in the whimsical fantasy series “Pushing Daisies,” playing Joe was, well, a change of pace.
“The PC maker is very different from the pie maker,” he says. “I like to be given the opportunity … to play characters that are very different. Joe could not be more different from Ned. Ned has such a big open heart. Joe does, too, but he’s just … I don’t know.
“Joe is a mystery to me. After working on him for all these months, I find him to be a pretty mysterious person. He’s got dad issues. That’s what the whole IBM thing is about, looking at the patriarch, looking at Dad, and having a score to settle.”
Says Lisco, “We think the show is not just about the computer business of the early ’80s, which could seem like it’s about, but it’s really about people fighting for competitive advantage in the marketplace. But it’s not just that; it’s about people at war with themselves as they search for something bigger.
“And when I say ‘something bigger,’ I mean capital S, capital B.”
Says Pace, “He’s moving at a speed that other people aren’t moving at, and he’s got a manner that rubs other people the wrong way.”
To Pace, Joe is a natural winner, but no superman.
“He’s that guy in the real world. He does take risks, but he fails, too. He makes mistakes, misjudgments. Things happen to him that he is unprepared to deal with. He’s not that powerful guy. He’s just a hustler. He’s not the visionary, really, because the visionary is a title you give after the fact, like to Steve Jobs.
“In this moment, Joe’s no visionary. He’s just a pain in the neck. … He’s making these people do things that they do not want to do.”