Coding the Human Condition: Halt & Catch Fire Showrunner Jonathan Lisco on the Sophomore Season

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Equipped with an unusual title and an offbeat logline, Halt & Catch Fire entered the cable landscape early last summer as a scrappy new contender in AMC’s ever-growing library of prestigious programming. Ostensibly a period drama about Dallas-based tech entrepreneurs in the 1980s, the series quickly built off its unorthodox premise, evolving from a simple dramatization of a Silicon Prairie tech boom into an engaging character study centered on the obsessive nature of dreams and the ever-oscillating line between genius and misplaced hubris.

On Sunday night the show returned for its second season on AMC. Set a year after the events of its inaugural season, Halt finds its characters as determined as ever to secure their lasting legacy in the world. Whereas last year focused on everyone working together to reverse-engineer an IBM PC, this year finds the fractured ensemble venturing into various new start-up schemes just as the earliest advent of the Internet comes into play.

In anticipation of a powerful new season, Paste spoke with series showrunner Jonathan Lisco, a veteran of such critically acclaimed shows as NYPD Blue and Southland, about the themes of this upcoming season, the importance of creating “formidable” female characters and whether Bill Gates will ever appear as a character on the show.

Paste: I’ve seen the first four episodes of the season and I’ve really enjoyed them. There’s a vibrant energy right from the start. What would you say you learned throughout the course of the first season that you tried to apply to this season?
Jonathan Lisco: From some peoples’ point of view, Season One began with a pace that was perhaps a bit too slow for them. They interpreted it as us laying a lot of pipe and not getting to the heart of the matter. We didn’t always agree with that, but we understood and took to heart the attitude that the show was finding its way in its first four episodes. We took a great deal of care this season to make sure that we were studying the relationships very carefully, drilling down deep and as quickly as possible. Of course, you can do that when you’ve had a successful Season One, which we believe was largely successful. But we’re certainly open to hearing criticism. We tried to not sacrifice any of the emotional and psychological depth that we served up in Season One, but we also tried to tell a more grounded story that was perhaps more quickly up on its feet.

Season One was about the cloning of the PC. Season Two is really about early online activity in the guise of gaming. Cameron and Donna are starting up a company [Mutiny] where they are hosting a platform for online gaming. We decided to make that the focal point of the narrative.

Paste Magazine: And it’s ironic that the storyline is all about community considering that the characters are in all these disparate places as the season begins.
Lisco: Absolutely. We’ll continue to look at the euphoria and the cost of going after your dreams in life. That is a seminal theme of the show. That there’s a thin line separating genius from self-delusion is also a seminal theme. This season we’re going to explore a couple of other themes even more conspicuously. Namely, this idea of atonement. Can you actually atone for what you’ve done in the past? Is redemption really possible and what does it even look like? Especially with Joe’s arc, we start to ask what happens to someone who has served his penance and reformed himself and found a better version of himself? Does he get credit for that and for his other acts of contrition or rehabilitation? We shall see.

Apropos of your point, another theme is human connectivity. Is anybody really out there or are we ultimately alone? Especially in Donna and Cameron’s case, we hope to broach some of those questions.

Paste: As you were saying, the first season has a very clear, definable arc—readying the PC for COMDEX. That was a goal that all the character shared. Considering that season ended with all the characters going their separate ways, can you speak to the challenges of bringing them back together?
Lisco: It was absolutely a challenge. Clearly, we wanted to play fair for the audience. When we had Joe walking off into the wilderness [in the first season finale], we didn’t want to come back and suddenly find Joe and Gordon working together again right away. That creates problems for us narratively because we want to be authentic, but the drama exists by bouncing these people off one another. We had to find a very careful way for Joe and Gordon to come back together and to have their stories cross-pollinate with Cameron and Donna’s Mutiny storyline. Gordon and Joe go on this journey that makes them very strange bedfellows with shared interests, despite their history. Because of their mutual ambition and because things have been done that need to be rectified, we cross-pollinate with the Mutiny storyline.

Paste: In the first season, it was clear Joe, Gordon and Cameron were the main trifecta. As the season went on, you got a lot of great work from Kerry Bishé as Donna and Toby Huss as Bosworth. This season really has you putting those characters even more front-and-center. Can you talk a little about their development?
Lisco: When Toby read the script to 108 last year and saw that he was going to get arrested—like any actor who is conscientious and cares—he gave me a buzz and said, ‘So, um, what does this mean for Bosworth?’ I said, ‘Listen, you’re inhabiting that character so effectively that there’s no universe in which we come back for a Season Two and John Bosworth isn’t an important character. And when you come back, we’re going to go deeper with your character. You won’t just be an ancillary character—we’ll go home with you, meet the people in your personal life.’ However, we wanted to do it in a way that felt like we’re playing fair to the audience. We wound up creating a way where he can come back into the fold in a very organic way and, indeed, he became the fifth member of the ensemble, with Donna being the fourth.

In terms of Donna, it was very important to me and everyone else to create female characters who weren’t just accessories to the men in the show. We looked very carefully at that. I actually wrote an episode in Season One [“Close to the Metal”], which had, in its objectives, to make it clear to everyone that Donna was a formidable, intellectual person who could give everyone a run for their money and might in some ways be a secret weapon.

Paste: That was a turn I think a lot of people connected to. As great as some other cable shows have been, there has been a tendency to treat the female characters as the wet blanket and you guys really went the other way with the cliché.
Lisco: I’m so glad you think so. I don’t know if you happened to see [Season Two,] Episode Two?

Paste: I did yes!
Lisco: Yeah, so there’s a scene [with Cameron and Donna] in a VC and they encounter some sexism. It’s coded, but it’s pretty obvious. In some shows you say, ‘Well that’s what the whole narrative has to be about—two woman in tech being maligned or not being treated as credible.’ And, of course, in our show, these women are formidable and they shrug it off. Yes, it’s a story point, but the whole story doesn’t become about sexism against women in the 80s. These women are extraordinary and they are venturing off to make their company despite the challenges. It’s a balancing act there. You want to make sure the characters don’t just sit there in the quagmire of sexism and talk about it for 42 minutes. But, of course, it would be disingenuous for them not to encounter it. So, yes, we dramatize it, but the storyline is not solely about that.

Paste: Speaking of the time period—obviously the characters are fictional, but the world they’re set in did exist. Where do you come down on what real life events or people you want to intersect with the show’s narrative? Obviously you used the famous [1984] Mac commercial last year. Have you considered casting someone as Michael Dell or Bill Gates? Or is that out of the realm?
Lisco: It’s not out of the realm. I can tell you honestly that, in the writers’ room, we’ve had a lot of fun conversations about that. In other words, ‘Hey, should Bill Gates be a character in the show?’ We’d have even more fun where we’d say, ‘Maybe Bill Gates is a character in the show but we never see his face. Maybe Joe is following Bill Gates around and only gets there right after he’s left so he only sees the back of his head or Gates’ napkin on the table.’

We’ve tried that a couple of times and experimented with stuff like that, but we wanted our characters to exist in a space that was tethered to actual events, but not so dependent on them where we could write ourselves into a box. We never went there, but we might experiment with it in Season Three. However, like all real world events we integrate into the show, it has to be in a way that feels organic and natural. Otherwise, it feels forced.

Paste: In terms of exploring the technology, it’s interesting to watch a show where people are working so hard to do things that you and I could do on our iPhones in five seconds. How do you set up the dramatic narrative of the show in terms of showing how characters can be smart and innovative even though the technology they’re working on is very primitive?
Lisco: It’s a great question and one we talk about all the time in the writers’ room: how do we make our characters seem smart so that we’re selling that they may actually be brilliant? And I say may be brilliant because part of the engine of the show is this tension where we ask ourselves—is this person a visionary or a fraud?

Putting that aside, we’re careful about riding that line. Clearly [the characters] can’t see the future perfectly. We don’t want them to. However, they can strive for it. They can try on an emotional and psychological level to grasp at this ineffable future, not knowing if what they’re working on will end up in the trashbin of history, or if they will create the new paradigm-changing device.

Paste: Because the technology is something many people may not be familiar with, was it important for you, from the very beginning, to find that emotional core where someone could not understand the technical jargon but understand the characters and why this all is important to them?
Lisco: In many ways, we feel that the show can only exist in that realm. In the writers’ room, we like to think about the show as the psychological and emotional—not literal—history of now…of how we got here. Of course, we get specific in the guise of our characters—that’s how you make good drama—but on a macro level, it’s also a story of how our collective consciousness got to this place of taking all this technology for granted. We wanted to get under the skin of that and probe what would it be like to take that ride 30 years ago.

Paste: In terms of your writers’ room makeup, how many people would you say are knowledgeable about this material, and how many just know just enough about their computer to use Final Draft?
Lisco: I’d say we started at a place where it was about half-and-half, but, by the end of the season, we were all tech enthusiasts, at the very least. Because you can’t write the show without becoming fascinated by the technology. Take myself as an example—I began as someone who had an above-average interest in technology, but I was not obsessed with it. By the time I got to the middle of Season One, I was obsessed with it because it’s impossible to write it and channel it unless you start to view it that way. And it’s cyclical and self-perpetuating, so as you study more about these people in the 80s and what they were doing, it’s impossible not to become smitten with this. Most of our writers have gotten to a place where they’re certainly not experts, but they’re nimble with the material so they know what to ask of the tech advisors we use.

Paste: From my perspective, the second season renewal of Halt came as this pleasantly surprising shock. The first season finale even seemed to double as a de facto series finale. From your perspective, how down to the last minute was that renewal?
Lisco: I can’t speak for AMC—and I don’t want to seem like I’m blowing smoke—but they had been supportive throughout our creative process. Does that mean they necessarily pick up the show for Season Two? No, obviously there’s a nexus of art and commerce that needs to be dealt with and it’s in their interest to do so both creatively and financially. But we didn’t think about it, honestly. We thought just about making the best possible show we could and making it the most satisfying experience for the audience. Sure, we left some runway open should there be a Season Two, but we felt like we were walking that tightrope for Season One and thought, ‘Look if there is no Season Two, at least you can feel some satisfaction here.’ We think we did that fairly well in Season One and we tried to do the same—if not better—in Season Two. I think we may have delivered an even more rewarding experience once you watch all 10 episodes.

Paste: You previously worked on Southland, which was another show that was under perpetual threat of cancellation. When you’re given a sudden second chance like this does that create more pressure for you or, since you know the expectations, is it less?
Lisco: That’s a really good question and I’m sure it’s showrunner specific, but I always feel like I’m eternally under pressure to make the show the best possible thing it can be. Our writers all feel the same way. Occasionally, we’re aware of market pressures, but the truth is we have our noses to the grindstone and are just focused on making the best show we can, knowing that there’s some variables we can control, whether or not we believe the show is firing on all cylinders. Variables like how many people watch the show, how it’s received, what the blogosphere says about it.

We really do our best to shield ourselves from all that noise. Not that it’s not important to us, but we can’t think about it 24/7 or else we’d be essentially paralyzed. Part of making a show is making strong choices and having a point of view, even if some people disagree with you. So, we just try to think about the work.

Paste: The whole first season is now on Netflix. Given that it started as a slow burn, do you feel as though the show now benefits from having people seeing all those episodes in a row as opposed to week-to-week?
Lisco: We’ve heard anecdotally that the show plays even better on Netflix than on broadcast. Otherwise, you’d have to wait a whole week and you’ve forgotten certain things—I’m sure this is true of other shows too. But now, it has this ability to mushroom in your consciousness while you’re sleeping. You will have watched three episodes like a movie, then you wake up the next day and your neurons are firing and you watch another three. It’s played really well on Netflix and we hope that gives us a pop for Season Two.

Paste: You were brought on as showrunner but you didn’t create the show—that was Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers. What ultimately made you decide to stay on as showrunner for the second season?
Lisco: It’s funny—I wasn’t 100 percent sure when I got the pilot that this is the show I should run. I was flattered that they wanted me to do it. On the page, it was extremely well written, but I wasn’t sure if there were enough stakes. I wasn’t sure if it would dramatically blow your hair back. Then I met the guys and they’re pretty inspiring guys, extremely bright and also couldn’t be lovelier. When I met them, I signed on.

Although Season One was a challenge in figuring out what episode two through ten was, it was a great ride and we ended up a wonderful team. I always say doing a show is basically about three things and two have to be true—obviously you want to make some money, but it’s really about the material and the people. In this case, the material started to really hook me and the people really made me happy. I had to sign on for Season Two. It was a no-brainer.

Paste: I actually wanted to talk a bit about your career as a writer. I read you started off as a Wall Street lawyer?
Lisco: Yeah, the firm itself was on 53rd and Lex—Shearman & Sterling, which is a very well known firm in New York that did a lot of financial work. But yeah, I started as a corporate lawyer in New York.

Paste: What series of poor decisions led you to this?
Lisco: [laughs] When I was a corporate lawyer, I was working on mergers and acquisitions. I would work on a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of a billion dollar deal selling a plastics company or something like that. No offense to lawyers, but I felt as though my soul was being sucked out. I felt rather alienated from the work. I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t come from a family that necessarily thought that was a prudent career path, shall we say?

Paste: I know exactly what you mean…
Lisco: I’m sure you can relate to that, Mark.

Paste: Both my parents were involved in medicine.
Lisco: There you go. But, yeah, they didn’t understand what being a writer in Hollywood really meant. Even after being a “fancy lawyer,” I started to wait tables in New York City. I wrote a play that eventually got me attention from Robert De Niro’s company and, shortly after that, Steven Bochco read that play in late 1999 and moved me across the country and put me on NYPD Blue.

Paste: Had you had any aspirations to work in TV before then?
Lisco: At that time, I just knew I had to make a change and I wanted to be a writer. Honestly, looking back, I think I was dumb in all the right ways [laughs]. If I really thought about all the challenges that lie ahead of me, I might not have done it. But I think I got to the point where I needed a change so badly that I had no choice but to pursue the life of a writer and see what happened. When I realized you could have a career as a writer working on TV and that TV was about to happen upon its renaissance—where it would be about real storytelling—the stars kind of aligned.

Paste: Was the NYPD Blue job right after the [creator/showrunner] David Milch years?
Lisco: David Milch was still hanging around at that time. In fact, the first time I wrote a script for Blue, David was weaning himself from the teat of the show. Steven Bochco had said he wouldn’t be around but, you know, [Andy] Sipowicz was based on David Milch’s father, so it was a very difficult show to wean himself from.

I remember I wrote a script and he walked into my office. He said, ‘I’m David Milch. I read your script—it’s pretty good.’ And I was levitating and walking on air. Then I remember the second sentence he said was, ‘Now, I’m going to teach you a little humility…’ [laughs] He proceeded to give me a round of notes in a very compassionate way, but I had never really gotten notes before and here I was getting notes on my first script from David Milch. I’ll never forget it. I felt pretty eviscerated afterwards. Not that he did anything wrong, but I just wasn’t used to the process. I think that’s what he meant—‘this is how we do it in TV…you write something and, like piranhas, we all workshop it and you have to be tough enough to deal with that process.’ For me, that was my baptism.

Paste: In terms of research, did you find that your time as a lawyer helped you when you transitioned to the writer/showrunner role?
Lisco: I think going to law school definitely helps you do research. But I also think going to law school thinking, ‘Oh, it will help with your writing’ is not necessarily true. What you have to do as a writer is create scenarios that draw people in and grab them by the lapels. You have to go for the emotional jugular without putting it in text. And I think, as a lawyer, you have to argue things in a very coherent, linear fashion. That can work against good storytelling. On the one hand, I totally get that it hones your brain to do research and also hones your brain to approach material with a logical template, which is important. But as far as getting to the heart of something or structuring the story in a way where a silent scene where a guy is looking off at the ocean can mean something without dialogue—that, I’m not 100 percent sure it helps with.

Paste: I read somewhere that you were once approached about being recruited by the CIA at one point?
Lisco: That is true! I was an East Asian Language major at Harvard and I found a letter in my mailbox from our Central Intelligence Agency. I actually did pursue it for a good nine or ten months. What 21-year-old raised on James Bond movies isn’t interested in being a spy? Ultimately, I chose not to do it for 100 reasons, but back then, they needed people who spoke those languages and I had lived in China for a couple of years, so that’s the reason I guess they were interested. I did not join, although a Hungarian newspaper thinks that I did. I think the headline was that I was a CIA agent. The joke in the writers’ room is that I am and I doth protest too much [laughs].

Paste: Looking at a lot of the shows you’ve worked on, there’s this recurring idea of a strange, twisted concept of a family—Halt is its own weird family, Jack & Bobby, Southland and you were going to work on a pilot based on the movie Animal Kingdom, which is about as messed up a family as you can get. What is it about that idea you find intriguing?
Lisco: Well, in all relationships, we’re kind of a family in the sense that in our relationships we wear different masks depending on who we’re talking to. I’m a different person with my sister than I am with my mom. I’m a different person with my mother than I am with my dad. That’s really fascinating. If my sister and I were asked about our childhoods, it would seem as though we grew up in different families. We’re seven years apart. And the dynamics of families are endlessly fascinating. Some people call it dysfunction, some call it pathology. But even a healthy family—and I consider myself having been raised in one—once you peel the onion, the way in which certain things are perceived and the way in which they’re influenced by people who are so dear to you, and the grudges that you hold—all those things are, to my mind, endlessly fascinating. Anytime you can embed that kind of social dynamic in a plot-driven show, you’ve got an extra layer.

Paste: Is there any project you were involved in that you wish had worked out? Either it didn’t go forward or you felt it was underappreciated?
Lisco: There was a show I did for Fox called K-Ville.

Paste: Oh yeah, the show about New Orleans.
Lisco: Yeah, I sold it to them as a look at a storm-ravaged city and a post-apocalyptic look at a couple of cops who were not in the least bit redeemed. It was gritty and it was supposed to be FX in tone. I have nothing but affection for Fox. They supported me through it, but, at the time, I don’t know if the audience was ready for a show like that. They were expecting it to be a show about spicy food and Bourbon Street. You find yourself getting into a situation as a writer where the thing you sold starts to morph and you are doing your absolute best to keep it in line with your original conception, but market-driven forces start to come in. I don’t have any regrets about it—it was a great experience, but it was a tough experience. If I could go back and do it again, I might have a different way to approach it.

Paste: What else should we know about this season of Halt & Catch Fire?
Lisco: This season we’re going to be looking at start-up culture and the idea of vectoring off on your own. In our era, it has become a legitimate and culturally condoned—frankly, almost trite—first career path for many late teens and twentysomethings. College students and so-called non-conformist dropouts think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be part of the tech boom.’ But in the mid-80s—while it wasn’t totally unheard of—this was not the norm. The startup culture was nascent and was just becoming an articulable thing. You really seemed different and even a bit off if you wanted to take these kinds of risks, especially if you were ostensibly “educated” and “had a choice” to go into the mainstream enterprises like IBM or Texas Instruments. So that’s why we feel, in a lot of ways, our show is the history of now because we want to get under the skin of what it’s like for two female entrepreneurs like Cameron and Donna to blaze that trail and grasp at that encoded future, not even knowing if they were going to succeed. I would say, that’s one of the focal points of the drama this season and one we’re really excited for viewers to invest in.


Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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