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Is 'Halt and Catch Fire' the Texas 'Mad Men'?

LYNN ELBER, AP Television Writer


LOS ANGELES (AP) — AMC, home of "Mad Men" and newcomer "Halt and Catch Fire," aired a recent promo that cleverly played connect-the-dots between its landmark series and the intriguingly titled drama.

The spot opened with a 1969 "Mad Men" character railing against a behemoth computer, then shifted to scenes of 1983 PC pioneers. "Once the future was hard to see," a narrator intones, "Then three rebels ... got with the program."

"Halt and Catch Fire" debuts Sunday (10 p.m. EDT), and AMC understandably would like to cast its new series as heir apparent to "Mad Men," which is poised to depart next year. Or how about invoking former channel star "Breaking Bad"?

Creators and executive producers Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers will have none of it. Or almost none.

Their series, set in Texas' "Silicon Prairie" during the frenzy to strike it rich in the burgeoning personal computer industry, hired "Mad Men" art decorator Chris Brown as its production designer.

Mark Johnson and Melissa Bernstein, who were producers on "Breaking Bad," are now at work on the new series.

But "there's no way to follow a show like that," Cantwell said of AMC's unlikely hit about a teacher-turned-drug king, and the same goes for "Mad Men."

"The only thing we can do is ... to focus on the world we're telling and make it as good as possible," he said.

Rogers said the drama is influenced by the recent TV past but strives to be part of a "new wave."

Rather than focus on one difficult antihero like a Tony Soprano or Don Draper, "this is a show about three people and has a pace and other elements" all its own, including its visual style and voice, he said.

The show's 1980s look, for example, is historically accurate but not as dominant an element as the 1960s have been for "Mad Men" — likely a wise move given how the style-challenged '80s stack up against the impossibly cool '60s.

"We wanted it to feel like a period show that is contemporary, that we can inhabit it and relate to these people," Rogers said. "We rarely will stop to point at the period and the ways things are different than they are now."

The title is obviously unique and may prompt even some geeks to draw a blank. As the pilot's opener explains, it's an early computer command, HCF for short, one that sent the machine into a race mode and prevented regaining control.

Keep that in mind as you watch slick, charismatic ex-IBM hotshot Joe MacMillan, played by Lee Pace, strut his way into a job at fictional Cardiff Electric with a risky scheme to force the firm from its comfort zone into battle with other aspiring PC kings.

On his team, willing or not, are family man and engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and college whiz kid Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), who quickly proves she's both brilliant and sexually liberated.

Watching nervously are longtime Cardiff executive John Bosworth (Toby Huss) and Gordon's engineer-wife, Donna, (Kerry Bishe), who has already tasted professional failure with him.

It's an ensemble cast, but Pace's Joe is the catalyst.

"When I first read it (the pilot), I thought of (stock trader) Ivan Boesky, I thought of the corporate raiders and that kind of spirit of '80s excess: 'More money, more sex, faster, harder, give it to me,'" said the actor, whose credits include Thranduil in "The Hobbit" film franchise, "Lincoln" and TV's "Pushing Daisies."

"But the more I worked on the character, the simpler he got. He just wants to make an awesome computer," Pace said.

Which, AMC and creators Cantwell and Rogers are betting, will make for awesome drama.

___

Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter@lynnelber.

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