THE SERIES "Halt and Catch Fire"

WHEN | WHERE Second-season premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT With the launch of Cameron Howe's (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark's (Kerry Bishe) gaming company, Mutiny, in March, 1985, Donna almost immediately notices unexpected user behavior (one day this will be called a "chat room"). Meanwhile, with Cardiff Electric sold, time for Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) to pick up their checks. But with the bitterness of the sale, what kind of checks will those be? Texas' so-called Silicon Prairie is not California's Silicon Valley, so Joe is contemplating a move west. Gordon plans to count his money. How long before that gets old, and he meddles with wife Donna's startup?

MY SAY After an early burst of enthusiasm for "Halt and Catch Fire," I drifted on . . . Nothing too serious, just the usual: Lots of shows to watch, not a lot of time to watch 'em. But that was my excuse. What was yours?

While the size of the first season crowd was respectable (1.3 million, in the "live plus 7 days" rating), the size of the buzz was minimal. "Halt" did not -- sorry, but can't resist -- catch fire.

Opinions on why vary, but my deal breaker was the technology story line, driven by the occasional eureka moment over long-dead devices and their "clones" that were tossed into landfills after a few years. (The indisputably more dramatic revolution -- the Internet -- still lies far in "Halt's" future.) But anticipating our inherent techno-snobbery, "Halt" did what any intelligent drama must do under the circumstances: Focus on the human characters instead.

Based on the first four episodes, that focus remains true. Proto-gamers Donna and Cameron are pushed to the front of the story, along with the frat house that doubles as Mutiny headquarters. A hobbled and humbled Joe, whose story is suddenly one of redemption, is pushed into the background. More ominously, Gordon is facing physical, psychological and (potentially) marital obstacles.

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What remains so frustrating about "Halt" is that you're left to wonder what these stories actually mean within their broader cultural or historical setting. Big, exciting period dramas are pushed along by big, exciting undercurrents -- or some core, intrinsic theme or idea telling viewers why these characters' lives reflect their lives in a fundamental or surprising way. You can see "Halt" reach for that something. You can't quite shake the sense that "Halt" doesn't know what that "something" is.

GRADE B-