'Halt and Catch Fire' needs more heat to catch fire

Robert Bianco
Ex-IBM worker Joe McMillan (Lee Pace, right) recruits a sales engineer (Scoot McNairy, left) and college programming prodigy (Mackenzie Davis) to help him create the first PC clone in "Halt and Catch Fire."

Could the race to find the next "prestige" drama halt for just a second?

Obviously, we've all been the beneficiaries of the competition among networks to produce the next buzzworthy, high-profile, Emmy-attracting series — a battle that started, on the cable side, with HBO and Showtime and has spread to FX, AMC, TNT, Starz and USA, to name a few. The contest has given us more quality dramas on more cable outlets than ever before, while pressuring the broadcast networks to do more than just let The Good Wife carry their quality banner.

The downside, however, is that you sometimes get the feeling "prestige" — as in the press it brings, the awards it can provoke and the cable subscribers it can attract — are all some of these networks are after. Not telling a great story. Not addressing some burning social issue. And not, heaven forbid, actually entertaining an audience. Just prestige for its own sake.

It's a peculiarly high-toned form of TV desperation — and nowhere has it been more apparent than at AMC, which despite the massive success of The Walking Dead, has otherwise flailed around trying to replace the departed Breaking Bad and the soon-to-depart Mad Men. So while planning spinoffs of Dead and Bad (desperate moves), AMC has stumbled through such low-voltage losers as Turn, Low Winter Sun, Hell on Wheels, Rubicon and (after a promising start) The Killing.

On the quality scale, Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Sunday, 10 ET/PT; * * ½ out of four) falls closer to Mad Men than Turn — stars Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy ensure that almost on their own. And compared with Low Winter Sun, it's an entertainment powerhouse. Yet you still may come away feeling the show and the network are just trying too hard to impress, when they should be trying harder to engage.

Like Silicon Valley but with less enticing results, Halt mines the world where computers and commerce meet. But for Halt, we're traveling back to 1983, where former IBM executive Joe MacMillan (Pace) has a seemingly impossible dream: To break his former employer's stranglehold on the personal computer market.

Part of his plan involves student prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), with whom he has frenzied sex in one of the show's silliest scenes. But the key is a Cardiff Electric engineer, Gordon Clark (McNairy), who once had grand computer dreams of his own, and whose refusal to let go of past failures has caused problems with his unsupportive wife (Kerry Bishe, in a role as thankless as it is tired).

The plot takes a few satisfyingly clever twists, some of them possibly even fact-based. The period touches seem well-observed, and the acting is fine throughout — with Pace a standout for the way he allows anger and doubt to be just barely visible below a calm, confident shell.

Yet too often the writing lets the actors down. Both main female characters — the tough girl who feels more than she shows and the bitter wife who eventually relents — are at least initially empty vessels. And much of the dialogue, particularly for the women and for the snarling bosses at Cardiff, makes you wonder whether co-creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher Rogers have ever actually listened to people talk in real life, as opposed to other people's films and TV shows.

Shows do improve, though if this one does, it might have been smart to make more than one episode available for review. Unless it gets worse, in which case it was smart to stop there, and at least momentarily garner some benefit-of-the-doubt acclaim.

That's the thing with prestige: It's easier to chase than to catch.