With Breaking Bad off the air and Mad Men rounding out its final seasons, AMC has some seriously large shoes to fill. Enter Halt and Catch Fire, which debuted at SXSW this past week as part of the festival’s new “Episodic” programming. The new drama takes place in Texas’s so-called Silicon Prairie where, before Steve Jobs made Northern California synonymous with computer innovation, the original battle for tech supremacy took place. The story centers on three main figures: the visionary Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace), the engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and the prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who set about, David-like, to take on the Goliath that is IBM. It’s hard to tell, from the pilot, whether or not this show has what it takes to break out. There’s a lot of table setting, time-period acclimation, and character introductions to make. But the engrossing performances from both veterans Pace and McNairy, and relative newcomer Mackenzie Davis are enough to make us want to see more. We caught up with some of the cast and crew to discuss why this 80s-set drama of battling computer companies has a chance at taking up the AMC prestige drama mantle.
Without a doubt, it’s Pace’s Joe MacMillan, an unscrupulous, driven businessman with a shadowy past, who is the likeliest heir to the AMC anti-hero brand. Pace himself urges viewers not to be put off by a show that starts at a simmer rather than a boil. He says, “The pilot is so tame compared to where it goes. Every other episode we’ve shot, and we just got the script for nine, it is ridiculous. I mean, it is absolutely insane. You’re like, Who are these maniacs?” But if MacMillan seems like an almost too-convenient match for Don Draper or Walter White, don’t worry, the show wasn’t cooked up in some anti-hero generator lab. In fact, the series creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers, who wrote the script without really intending to pitch it, based the plot on Cantwell’s father’s experience in the computer industry. The project is, Pace says, a deeply personal one for everyone involved.
It’s weirdly personal, this show, for everyone. We always talk about it. There are things about Joe MacMillan, I read them on the page and I’m a little uncomfortable that I understand him so well. Things are ringing true. It is such a collaboration. [. . .] My dad was 34 in 1983. I’m 34 now. To really respond to the world he’s living in is such an interesting opportunity.
Actor Toby Huss, who plays Pace’s put-upon boss John Bosworth, says that having grown up in the 80s, he didn’t expect Halt and Catch Fire to look so stylish. “I graduated high school in 1983 and, for me, it was a really ugly ass time. [. . .] At first blush the 80s was bereft of all the visual pyrotechnics you see in Mad Men, you know those juicy, sexy colors. Ours is a much denser look.” But the beige palate of the show, Huss says, relates to the beige morality of the characters. He says there’s “a real massive human broke-ness at the core of all these characters.” Pace added that we should save the black-and-white/good-guy-vs.-bad-guy stories “for the movies,” and admits that in an era of sympathetic sociopaths, and benign bastards, “It is a nice time to be a part of television like this.”
Pace is no stranger to cult TV character status. He gained an avid fan following for his portrayal of Ned, the romantic pie maker, in Bryan Fuller’s cancelled-before-its-time Pushing Daisies. Though Joe MacMillan and Ned are worlds apart, Pace said he would happily revisit that role should the much-rumored Pushing Daisies musical ever come to be.
Totally. I’d do anything for Bryan. He’s such a great guy. [. . .] I’ll always have a soft spot for Ned and Chuck. I absolutely fell in love with Anna Friel, so I would love any opportunity to look into her eyes again.
Will the much colder Joe MacMillan be able to capture the hearts and minds of TV audiences in the same way? We’ll find out. Halt and Catch Fire premieres on AMC on June 1, just as Mad Men wraps its seventh season