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'Halt And Catch Fire' Gives Lee Pace The Starring Role He Deserves

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HALT AND CATCH FIRE
Lee Pace in 'Halt and Catch Fire.' | AMC

If you're a fan of Lee Pace or if you enjoy dramas set in the technology world, "Halt and Catch Fire" (10 p.m. ET Sunday, AMC) is worth checking out.

Since AMC made the very strange decision to only send out one episode, it's hard to make much more of a case for "Halt" than that. Given that the network greenlit the show a year ago and production ended at least a month ago, it's difficult to believe that there weren't more episodes available to share with the media, which usually gets at least a few episodes of new cable dramas. Of course, the stinginess with episodes could be a sign of caution stemming from the (deserved) drubbings that "Turn" and "Low Winter Sun" received. Or it could say something about where "Halt" is heading next, which would be a shame -- but to be fair to the show, we just don't know.

In any event, consider this a provisional review, one that makes that case that "Halt" is probably worth watching for at least a few weeks. The pilot features multiple scenes of people hunched over the disassembled innards of an early-'80s personal computer, which is not the most dynamic of scenarios, but the good news is, "Halt" has more promising elements as well.

Chief among them is Pace, who has an uncanny ability to play remote or arrogant characters who are nevertheless fascinating and who even betray hints of vulnerability. Pace's flashy salesman character, Joe MacMillan, burns with a mysterious intensity and there are indications that something dark lies just below the surface of his slick, practiced charm. Despite the obvious danger, MacMillan's charisma ends up being a draw for sad-sack engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), who has shelved his dreams of taking the personal computer in exciting new directions.

The first hour, while decently paced, does display some growing pains. If there's one thing I never need to see again in a cable drama (or any drama), it's a female character whose main job is to put limits on a man who wants to Take Risks and Do Things (Women! Why don't they ever get it??). Kerry Bishé is forced into the maddening Complaining Cable Wife role in "Halt," unfortunately. Donna Clark, Gordon's spouse, once shared his technology dreams, but not after a big project flamed out on the pair. Donna's role in the pilot is to remind Gordon that he has a family (you know, that thing that always drags down the big dreamers), and it's my fond hope that Bishé's role is expanded well beyond those semi-shrill parameters as the show goes forward.

MacMillan's boxy, double-breasted suits and his '80s bravado take up much of the mental and physical space in "Halt," but Toby Huss is terrific as Joe's irascible boss, and Mackenzie Davis also makes a strong impression as Cameron Howe, a bored computer major who is unimpressed with the state of the industry's ambition in the early '80s. Unlike "Silicon Valley" -- which is set several decades later -- "Halt" makes it clear that women have always been involved in technology. Don't get me wrong, I generally like "Silicon Valley" (though the second half of the season took a dismaying turn toward dopiness and crudeness), but its insistence on treating female programmers and engineers as nearly non-existent unicorns is not just lazy and troubling, it's incorrect.

There's a tentativeness to "Halt's" first hour -- it doesn't end especially strongly -- but overall, the drama has a mostly credible pilot and lead actors who will probably be able take the show in compelling directions. We'll just have to see how the program runs from here.

"Halt and Catch Fire" premieres 10 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC.

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