Halt and Catch Fire: on the set of the best show on TV (that no one is watching)

We get a behind-the-scenes look at the show thats been dubbed the heir apparent to Mad Men and has reinvented the dark anti-hero drama

Kerry Bish has a problem. More to the point, she has a problem with a line. Can we change this? Can I say narcissist instead of diva? she asks Halt and Catch Fire showrunner Chris Rogers and the director of the episode, Reed Moreno. Its not a surprising exchange for a series that has developed a reputation for putting forth some of the most well-rounded female characters on TV. Bishs character, Donna Clark, is in the process of disparaging her partner, Cameron Howe, played by Mackenzie Davis, in the tech start-up Mutiny. Their complex friendship and tumultuous business relationship are the heart and soul of a critical darling that is hoping to broaden its audience after a surprising and welcome season three renewal.

The Halt set is a jolly place, overtaking a sprawling soundstage tucked amid the tree-lined freeways of Atlanta. Rogers and his partner, Chris Cantwell, who took over as showrunners from previous steward Jonathan Lisco, cultivate a cheerful yet diligent atmosphere. Cast and crew are rewarded with snowcones in celebration of the final day of shooting for guest star Annabeth Gish, who joins the series as a venture capitalist who becomes involved with Mutinys growth plans. The days work ceases for the snowcones and a quick speech to honor Gishs work, ending earlier than anyone expected. Moreno, an accomplished cinematographer-turned-director who is attached to helm the first few episodes of Hulus adaptation of Margaret Atwoods The Handmaids Tale, is remarkably efficient for someone directing their first episode of television ever.

What began as a corporate thriller set amid the Silicon Prairie era of the computer industry, in Texas led by Lee Pace as smooth-talking salesman Joe MacMillan and Scoot McNairy as the nebbishy Gordon Clark has morphed into an ensemble piece thats now set in 1986 Silicon Valley. Each season has felt like a software update refreshing the user interface and fixing the bugs, while keeping the basic framework intact. When we sat together and talked about what we wanted the show to look like, we were borrowing a lot from late 70s films like All the Presidents Men and Parallax View and The Conversation, producer Jeff Freilich says.

Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers. Photograph: James Minchin/AMC/AMC

We conceived this show in a different age of television, Cantwell says. Rogers admits: Maybe we started out aping Mad Men with the serious, prestige drama tone. One of the early knocks on the show during its first season was that it felt too indebted to Matthew Weiners modern classic. But then we kinda let in our kind of comic book, neon arcade sensibility and irreverence and a pace that seemed more us, he adds.

That sense of playfulness has pushed the show toward the confident big swings that prevent a series from creative atrophy. The move to the San Francisco Bay area might seem like a curveball, but the way Rogers describes it, the choice was inevitable. Success for these people in that world became California, this idea. The last episode of the last season is called Heaven is a Place, because they were all acting like Silicon Valley was going to solve all their problems.

I had a friend who worked on [the WGN series] Manhattan [who said]: We blew up the bomb. Now where do we go? To have stayed in Texas would have been to blow up our bomb.

There arent any literal bombs on Halt and Catch Fire, nor do any seem to be heading our way in the future. This is a series that eschews the sorts of narrative pyrotechnics that one is used to seeing in the typical prestige drama. Cars dont explode and no one walks away from said explosion slowly while a classic rock song plays. Absolutely no one carries a sword. There are no zombies. Its AMC, so theres also no gratuitous nudity. Maybe thats why its so hard to get the curious TV watcher to buy in to the show.

Its hard to sit there and diagnose why people arent watching it, Cantwell tells me in a conference room in the production office. There was surprise and joy from TV critics when the show was renewed for a third season, as it had a paltry average viewership of 530,000 per episode. I have to live with the fact that you like what you like, adds Cantwell. If people like the show, they love it. People that dont see the show, its hard to get people to turn it on, because they go, Whats it called? Whats it about? Its such a crazy, mysterious alchemy to me.

Kerry Bish as Donna Clark and Scoot McNairy as Gordon Clark. Photograph: Tina Rowden/AMC/AMC

The secret weapons of Halt are Bish and Davis, who had effortless chemistry from the moment they first shared a scene back in season one. The episode filming today is Donna-centric. Bish has to play both subtle comedy and intense internal struggle. Her greatest asset as an actor is her ability to describe the full gamut of emotions with a single glance. A pivotal scene filmed toward the end of the day features at least five different variations on Bish looking devastated, each one uniquely heartbreaking. Davis has the flashier role: impulsive, manic, brilliant, and (heres that word again) narcissistic. What she is not is a diva.

I dont think describing her as a diva is very specific, actually, Bish says in the corner of the set that portrays her office, festooned with family photos, fake mail, and vintage San Francisco phone books from the period. What I said to Chris when I asked if we could change that word just now was: it feels very gendered to say diva. Narcissist feels less gendered and more specific to the scenario and to her actual personality traits.

Rogers and Cantwell have made a habit of both being open to change and to supporting the foregrounding of their female protagonists. The emphasis on Donna and Cameron in season two turned around the mixed reaction to the first batch of episodes and set it apart from the dark anti-hero dramas of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

I think the pilot we conceived was an anti-hero pilot about Joe MacMillan, and then we kinda changed it to a three-hander, and over time, the show has evolved into a kind of five-hander, Rogers says. I think thats just because TV has seen the anti-hero done. We thought there wasnt a lot more to say about the white male psyche, a guy thats difficult in business.

Bish tells me: I was concerned that the character would be like any other wife and mom; frustrated, nagging wife that we see on TV a lot. Theres this one scene where I come home, hes drinking a beer and I gotta get the kids ready, gotta make dinner, and in the midst of this, they broke their toy. I gotta look at this Speak-n-Spell and take it apart. And this is the first moment that we get this inkling that shes not all that we think she is. I remember the director [Juan Campanella] said, Its OK if you fumble a little bit. Youre harried. Youre in a rush. And I was like, no, no. I need to be preternaturally good at this.

This feels like a make-or-break season for Halt and Catch Fire. AMC has supported the show and allowed it to be exactly what its creators want it to be. The end of this run of episodes, which includes a bold plot twist, could function as a series finale, says Rogers, who believes audiences deserve a degree of closure. Whether closure will be necessary remains to be seen. Months after my visit, AMC released the first episode of season three two days early without any advanced warning. It got people talking about the show, even if the intended audience might not have been aware that the episode aired. Unconventional marketing strategies could be the best way to bring eyeballs to this underdog series.

[Halt and Catch Fire] is about creative people collaborating to try and bring a brilliant product to market, and the compromises you have to make along the way, Bish says. If thats not analogous to a TV show, then I dont know what is.

  • Halt and Catch Fire seasons three starts on AMC on Tuesday 23 August 9pm ET

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/aug/22/halt-and-catch-fire-amc-set-visit-kerry-bishe