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.