All Tech Considered
8:41 am
Wed March 12, 2014

SXSW: Tech Industry Inspires New Shows From HBO, AMC

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 5:41 am

Television show creators are peering into the geeky and moneyed world of computer programmers with a new comedy from HBO and a drama from AMC, both debuting this spring.

The networks each premiered their tech-centric programs at South by Southwest this week. One show — AMC's Halt and Catch Fire — is a drama that takes place at the dawn of the PC revolution, and the other — HBO's Silicon Valley — is a comedy that lampoons today's tech startups. But they both explore the folks who, for better or worse, are changing the way we live.

In AMC's fictional telling, the race to beat the IBM personal computer in the early 1980s is the stuff of a layered, character-driven story. The show seeks to do for Reagan-era engineers what Breaking Bad did for an erstwhile chemistry teacher. It debuts June 1, in Mad Men's time slot.

"I think if you want to tell a story about people at war with themselves ... trying to figure out what's important and how to order their priorities, at least for my money, the technology of it all is a perfect way to do that," says Jonathan Lisco, Halt and Catch Fire's executive producer.

In today's tech startup world, figuring out what's important sometimes puts young programmers at the heart of multimillion-dollar bidding wars. Or, it turns these socially awkward young people into sudden billionaires, which can make for great gags.

"I find it all really absurd and funny," says Mike Judge, the creator of Silicon Valley. "Engineers, programmers, are just odd people."

Alec Berg is an executive producer, with Judge.

"Socially awkward people with money is a very funny area. I don't think the rail barons were as nerdy and awkward as these guys are. But we live in an era where the Zuckerbergs of the world are king," Berg says.

Staggering sums, society-shifting ideas and weird people. It's all ripe for the imaginations of screenwriters.

"This is where the excitement is right now, so they've just been waiting to film it, and get it financed. I think we'll see even more versions of this," says Nitasha Tiku, co-editor of Valleywag, a site that covers the lives and lifestyles of people in tech.

"I think also people are really scared about technology or they're fascinated by it. They see how quickly it's permeated into their everyday lives. And here are the builders and the creators of that," Tiku said.

Today's creators and builders inform HBO's comedy, while their early personal computing predecessors inspire AMC's drama. Both are fictional tales, based on a similar subculture, and the powerful reality that technology changes the way we live.

"Right now, the way in which one could dramatize best an existential struggle and what is important to people, what sacrifices are you willing to make, is certainly through the portal of technology," Lisco says.

That tech and its programmers are getting their big TV moment could be a reflection of how the American dream is being recast as a startup dream. Or, as Judge suggests, everyone just got the idea at the same time.

"There were a bunch of asteroids-hitting-the-Earth movies all at once," Judge says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The tech industry is the inspiration for two new TV shows coming out this spring. HBO and AMC premiered the programs at the SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas, this week. They portray a field full of young programmers, fast-paced innovation and billion-dollar buyouts. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the shows also explore technology's connection with our daily lives.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The personal computer, something we depend on so much, came about because someone created it. It wasn't that long ago that IBM made a PC that started a shift in the way we work and a race to beat it.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "HALT AND CATCH FIRE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Reverse engineer and IBM PC with me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wow. You're serious.

HU: That is a clip from "Halt and Catch Fire," a drama from AMC that comes out this June. It screened for audiences at SXSW over the weekend and stars actor Lee Pace as a Steve Jobs-like visionary and salesman.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "HALT AND CATCH FIRE")

LEE PACE: (As Joe MacMillan) Computers aren't the thing. They're the thing that gets us to the thing.

HU: The show seeks to do for Reagan-era engineers what "Breaking Bad" did for an erstwhile chemistry teacher. Jonathan Lisco is executive producer.

JONATHAN LISCO: And I think if you want tell a story about people at war with themselves, trying to figure out what's important and how to order their priorities, at least for my money, the technology of it all is a perfect way to do that.

HU: In today's tech world, figuring out what's important sometimes puts young programmers at the heart of multimillion-dollar bidding wars. The money stakes are higher than ever, which can make for some good gags.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "SILICON VALLEY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We had a guy in here in almost the exact same situation, take the money or keep the company.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He shot himself because he turned down the money?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah. Or no. He took the money. Or no, I - he did not - I don't - you know what? I don't remember. But whatever it was, he regretted it so much that he ended up shooting himself and now he's blind.

HU: That show is HBO's upcoming "Silicon Valley." It's from Mike Judge, who also created cult cubicle life classic "Office Space." He showed up in Austin to debut the show in front of its first audience, one full of tech types.

MIKE JUDGE: I find it all really absurd and funny. Engineers, programmers, are just odd people.

HU: Alec Berg is an executive producer with Judge.

ALEC BERG: Socially awkward people with money, you know, is a very funny area. I don't think the rail barons were as nerdy and awkward as these guys are. But we live in an era where, you know, the Zuckerbergs of the world are king.

HU: Making tech startup stories ripe for the imaginations of screenwriters.

NITASHA TIKU: This is where the excitement is right now.

HU: Nitasha Tiku is a writer for Valleywag, a site that covers the lives and lifestyles of people in tech.

TIKU: So they've just been waiting to film it, and get it financed. I think we'll see even more versions of this and especially when there hasn't really been anything definitive yet. I think also people are really scared about technology or they're fascinated by it. They see how quickly it's permeated into their everyday lives. And here are the builders and the creators of that.

HU: Today's builders and creators inform HBO's comedy, while their early personal computing predecessors inspire AMC's drama. Both are fictional tales, based on a similar subculture, and the powerful reality that technology changes the way we live. "Halt and Catch Fire's" Jon Lisco.

LISCO: Right now, the way in which one could dramatize best an existential struggle and what is important to people, what sacrifices are you willing to make, is certainly through the portal of technology.

HU: Technology and its programmers getting their big television moment, reflecting how the American dream is being recast as a startup dream. Or, as Mike Judge suggests, everyone just got the idea at the same time.

JUDGE: Like, there were a bunch of, you know, asteroids-hitting-the-Earth movies all at once.

HU: The confluence of TV shows about techies could just be a coincidence. Elise Hu, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.