Tech drama Halt And Catch Fire gets it right

Producer for Halt And Catch Fire faced the challenge of creating visuals snazzy but without turning off technophiles

If you bill your television show as a fictional but realistic take on the birth of the personal computer age, featuring early-1980s engineers tinkering with circuits and scrawling software code on chalkboards, you should be wary of nerd rage should a maths error or anachronism slip through.

Ms Melissa Bernstein, executive producer of the AMC series Halt And Catch Fire, knows that her show walks a tightrope - it has to make the visuals jazzy enough for audience members who could not care less about computers, without taking it so far that influential technophiles are turned off.

"We need to get the technology right, through our technical consultant. It has to hold up with our audience and pass the smell test," she tells Life! on the telephone from the show's location in Atlanta, Georgia.

Creating "authentic but visually interesting" environments is a major challenge for a show with many scenes featuring characters tapping keyboards or chatting in boardrooms.

The first step for directors, she says, is to not treat computers as mere props, but to "hold them in high esteem". She adds: "In our show, we see blackboards, boardrooms and even cubicles in ways which have never been seen before. We get angles and lines that are special."

The 10-episode, hour-long drama seems to have found the right balance. Despite low to middling audience numbers when it launched in the United States last year, it has been renewed for a second season because it has struck a chord in viewers aged 18 to 49, a group that advertisers want to court.

Season One launched in Singapore last month on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322). New episodes air every Wednesday at 8pm.

The title comes from the computer command that tells the processor to stop all operations at once. Set in the early 1980s in the "Silicon Prairie" of Texas, Halt is built around four characters.

Salesman Joe McMillan (Lee Pace) spots a way to steal the computer market from his former employer, IBM. He seeks the help of engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and software prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). Clark's wife Donna is also a brilliant hardware designer, but she has sworn off private ventures after the couple's last foray cost them their life savings.

Ms Bernstein is proud of how female characters such as Cameron and Donna Clark are not just in the thick of the action, but also have personalities that are as rich and detailed as the men's.

Cameron is an iconoclast who has trouble fitting in with groups. Donna is at first "the standard complaining TV wife" who bars her husband from taking risks. But as the season progresses, a "wonderful partnership" develops between the two, Ms Bernstein says.

Her resume includes producing work on award- winning shows such as the crime thriller Breaking Bad, the drama Rectify and, most recently, the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul.

She remains upbeat about Halt, despite its lukewarm ratings. In television, things can turn around quickly. Halt's first season mirrors Breaking Bad's earlier seasons in that both shows attracted critical praise without the big ratings.

Breaking Bad, which ended its five-season run on AMC in 2013, had mediocre ratings for its first three seasons, in addition to other issues, she adds.

"In the first season, we were interrupted by a writers' strike. The show almost became a victim of that strike. But AMC and Sony really believed in it and gave it support, which on another channel and at another time might not have been given."

And by Season Four, the show about a chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin enjoyed ratings that matched its level of critical acclaim.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Halt And Catch Fire is telecast on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) every Wednesday at 8pm.