At the moment, AMC remains at the top of the heap when it comes to cable drama series. With The Walking Dead still raking in millions of viewers and slavish fanbases looking forward to the next seasons of Mad Men, Hell on Wheels, and Breaking Bad, the channel looks to stay that way for the foreseeable future. However, the long-term doesn't bode so well for the network. Mad Men's immense budgetary needs are stripping other shows of capital; Hell on Wheels' season 3 has been delayed while it searches for a new showrunner; and, of course, Breaking Bad will be ending definitively next summer.
Perhaps with an eye toward potential future chasms in their programming lineup, AMC has begun acquiring new dramatic content. In addition to the recent revelation that the network may once again show The Killing with the backing of Netflix, AMC has announced that it has acquired the rights to two new series: Turn and Halt & Catch Fire.
Executive-produced by the men behind Breaking Bad and Bones, respectively, both series are period dramas – though each of a decidedly different sort. Easily the more interesting of the two upcoming dramas, Turn is a dramatic telling of the formation of The Culper Ring, George Washington's personal spy network. Taking place in 1778, the story will follow Abraham Woodhull, the real-life spymaster who formed the Ring from a circle of childhood friends and like-minded patriots. The series is apparently adapted from the nonfiction book Washington's Spies, by Alexander Rose. Turn is being written by Craig Silverstein (Nikita).
Halt & Catch Fire is also technically historical, though focusing on a period in living memory: the early 1980s. The show will revolve around a group of electronics pioneers as they navigate the exploding personal computing boom of the time. Created by the journeyman writing team of Chris Cantwell and Chris Rodgers, it sounds as if Halt & Catch Fire is a dramatic reinterpretation of the rise of major computing figures such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As a note, the series' unusual name is derived from a term for a computing code specifically designed to destroy a machine's CPU. Does this provide a clue to the sort of cutthroat tech geekery Halt & Catch Fire will eventually display?
On paper – and judging only from the short plot blurbs provided by AMC – neither new series has the high-concept spark that has distinguished many of the network's television series. Turn sounds as if it has the potential to be crackerjack spy entertainment, but it could just as easily end up being stuffy and staid (not to mention AMC's poor track record when it comes to spy dramas). Halt & Catch Fire's stated premise sounds like a mixture of boredom and possible cheese, already summoning visions of melodramatic early 1980s hacking sequences.
That said, "Ad executives navigate personal and professional peril in the 1960s" doesn't exactly sound like a dynamite idea for a TV show when displayed in a vacuum. Yet, five seasons after it first aired, Mad Men continues to dominate as a critical and commercial darling. Depending on how it's spun, Halt & Catch Fire could easily end up being fantastic entertainment, even if it is from an unlikely source. Personally, my money is on Turn, its sister show, being the surprise standout. Whether either series will help AMC maintain its reign over cable drama in a post-Breaking Bad world remains to be seen.
Turn and Halt & Catch Fire are scheduled to begin production in early 2013.