'Halt and Catch Fire' Boss on Season 2 Reboot, Tackling Feminism and the Future

Showrunner Jonathan Lisco talks with THR about changing the pace of the AMC computer drama, 'Mad Men' comparisons and not becoming the Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak story.
'Halt and Catch Fire'

AMC's Halt and Catch Fire returns for its second season Sunday with a reboot of sorts.

Following a freshman season that opened with rave reviews, viewers — and some critics — fled the series as the 1980s computer drama crawled toward the finish line.

In a bit of a shocker, AMC renewed the low-rated drama (averaging 1 million viewers with seven days of DVR included) for a second season, with network president Charlie Collier expressing patience with Halt and banking on building an audience over time.

Showrunner Jonathan Lisco says producers listened to viewers and have amped up the pace for season two, which will also tackle feminism.

Here, Lisco talks with The Hollywood Reporter about what to expect from season two, Mad Men comparisons and how the Lee Pace drama won't become a story about Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.

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Season two is a bit of a reboot. What worked last season? What needed work? What are some changes for this season?

Globally speaking, we intend to approach the show much as we did last season. In other words, a strong evolving technology story will be the "spine" of the next 10 episodes in season two. But the real story will be the emotional and psychological journeys of Joe (Pace), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Donna (Kelly Bishe). And this season, Toby Huss' character Bosworth, who this season we intend to make a fuller, more dynamic member of our ensemble.

We feel like we did a lot of things well in the first season, but we heard people's notes that it felt like it moved a little too slowly at first or took a few episodes to find its footing. This is why this season we've really concentrated on — without sacrificing any of the psychological or emotional depth — parachuting in. Season two will focus on the early Internet — the proto-Internet — through Mutiny, which is the name of the company that Cameron and Donna will be running. So season two is going to be highlighting not only start-up culture, but also the formidable female entrepreneurs, Cameron and Donna, who are running this company.

Two women building something special in the '80s sounds as if the show is taking a strong stand on feminism.

Oh, there's no doubt about it. My and [fellow creators] Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers' pet peeve is when female characters in dramas on television wind up only as accessories to the male storylines. By the time episode four come around — a very Donna-centric, Donna as a hero episode — we knew we were creating two women in Donna and Cameron, who were formidable engineers and formidable people in their own right. At the same time, they're at different levels of feminism. Donna is 10 years ahead of Cameron roughly, so she has forged a path for women like Cameron coming up. And women like Cameron coming up might not appreciate the way Donna has blazed the trail. So while they're both feminists in their own way, there's certainly a differential between them that's fodder for drama in the way they view the marketplace. It's one thing to [create a start-up] now but it's quite something different to do it 30 years ago. There weren't many data points for start-ups reaching meteoric success. So you had to be even more arrogant, even more intrepid and even more blind to reason if you were going to do something like that. To be two women on top of it, trying to blaze a trail in tech is really a story worth telling.

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Mad Men, one of AMC's most beloved series just ended. Why should viewers fill their Sunday sized hole with Halt and Catch Fire?

A lot of people have fairly, or unfairly, tried to compare Halt and Catch Fire to Mad Men or Breaking Bad. To the extent that we try and create memorable and complex characters who you sometimes love and sometimes wish they could be better versions of themselves — then guilty as charged. We are like those dramas. But that said, we are very different from those two shows. We are, among other things, an origin story about a diverse group of people who dared to dream and to sacrifice and to sort of be ambitious in a way that has its dark side at the dawn of the information age. I don't see how that show sounds anything like Mad Men or Breaking Bad. I would argue that the question of whether or not they were geniuses or frauds or both is an interesting story to tell and we want to get to the heart of that.

The shows are quite different — though Joe MacMillian and Don Draper are both into self-sabotage. Is Joe creative or destructive? Is he Don Draper-like?

Wait until you see what we have in store for in season two. To say Joe is a bad guy, we always felt was too reductive. Plus, in our writers' room, we're over the anti-hero ethos. Now we'd like to think of Joe as a more nuanced character. Of course he's flawed. But that's one of the reasons he's interesting. Given his backstory, he's coming from a place of damage and is trying to compensate for some fundamental damage that's been done to him. Season two will be all about redemption and atonement for Joe and whether or not his past misdeeds will haunt him or whether or he can emerge as a new authentic Joe. And along the way you'll be asking, has he really changed? Has he really reformed himself? Or is this just another mask he's wearing because he feels it'll get him ahead or be advantageous in a way that his more calculated self was disadvantaged in season one?

How do you pick what technology you want to highlight?

For season one it felt logical that when we wanted audiences to connect to a show about computers, it made sense to a make a show about cloning a PC and the PC wars so they could really have something was concrete and built throughout the season. For season two, we rode ourselves into a natural segue because Cameron founded Mutiny at the end of season one and stated that her mission for the company was to create an online gaming service where you get software in the mail, dial up in a modem and get to play online against strangers. Since PlayNet, [the foundation of what] became AOL was around at that time, it made sense to set it in 1985 when we could really tell that story.

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What else can viewers look forward to this season?

We're not telling the iconic Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak story. So we're not borrowing liberally from the specifics of their journeys. However, having done 20 episodes of the show and meeting a lot of people from tech in this era, we find common currents like the willingness to take risks when everyone is telling you you're crazy. The driving ambition you feel even though it has a dark side, the things you're willing to sacrifice for what you believe in. These emotional and psychological touchstones are what we've really been taking from reality. The way our characters come back together happens in a dynamic, unexpected way.

What year do you intend the series to get up to? Is there any technology you'd really love to tackle?

We're grateful to our loyal audience and if they continue to support us, hopefully we'll get to do many more seasons of the show. By season seven, we have a joke in the writers' room that it'll be 2020 and we will do a show that is set in a time period that surpasses a time that we're currently in. Anything is fair game.

The season two premiere of Halt and Catch Fire airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC. 

Twitter: @TVTherapy