Pros and Cons
Smooth-talking swindlers + low ratings = the best TV show you’ll never see.
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As high-profile meltdowns go, you’d be hard-pressed to top the sad spectacle of Lone Star, the much-hyped, instantly canceled Fox television drama that was expected to be one of the season’s biggest hits. The show, about an old-fashioned con man (James Wolk) set loose in the Texas oil and gas industry, earned rave reviews leading up to its September premiere; TV Guide, USA Today, and NPR all named it the best new show of the fall. Fox even took the step of announcing that Andie MacDowell would be joining the cast in later episodes, a vote of confidence that suggested Lone Star had a long life ahead.
The confidence dissipated in an instant. Lone Star aired on September 21 to epically bad ratings: 4.1 million viewers, an almost unfathomable 66 percent drop-off from its lead-in show, House. Austin-based creator Kyle Killen rapidly took to his blog and Twitter, begging for viewer support. “For us to survive we’re going to have to pull off a minor miracle,” he wrote. No miracle was forthcoming. Two days after the second episode, which saw ratings dip a further 23 percent, the ax fell. It was one of the fastest cancellations in television history.
And now for the truly bitter irony: At least based on those first two episodes, Lone Star had the makings of something very special. Killen gave us an appealingly Texas-flavored vision, a show with one foot planted in a gilded past, where oil magnates and their bratty scions don Armani suits and dine at high-end steakhouses, and the other foot in our unsteady present, where the entire American financial system has gone to rot. Even more intriguing, Lone Star engaged with Texas pop cultural history, both the gaudy soap operatics of oil sagas like Giant and Dallas and the brutal black comedy of Fort Worth–born novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose most famous creation, the “talented” Mr. Tom Ripley, ran more than a few crooked schemes just like the ones on Lone Star. The two other shows currently being shot in North Texas, Fox’s The Good Guys and NBC’s Chase, simply can’t hold a candle (see “Empty Pursuit”). Is there really no enterprising cable network willing to resurrect it?
The plot, admittedly, took a little effort to wrap your head around—and patience is a dangerous thing to test when viewers can easily click over to Bristol Palin doing the cha-cha on Dancing With the Stars. But Lone Star repaid you for your attention with a worldview at once witty and weary; it plugged in to an age where no one trusts anyone, least of all when it comes to money. In the pilot episode, Robert Allen (Wolk) is a hardworking young man in Midland, about to be married to a sweet local girl (Eloise Mumford), who earns his keep by selling oil play shares to his neighbors—shares, alas, that are worthless. The oil play, we learn, is just the latest in a string of schemes cooked up by Robert and his father, John (David Keith). These two scoundrels also have a second, higher-stakes con operating in Houston, where Robert is known as Bob and where he is married to the daughter (Adrianne Palicki) of millionaire Clint Thatcher (Jon Voight). If Bob can just land a job in Clint’s oil empire, it will be the first step—or so Papa John hopes—in bilking the Thatchers out of their vast fortune.
Like the best con man–oriented entertainment, Lone Star was never quite what you expected it to be. Back in March, there was a flurry of news reports trumpeting that Voight had joined the cast. We were told he would be playing a gravelly voiced “big shot that can easily wear boots or a three-piece suit,” and surely I wasn’t the only one who envisioned a J. R. Ewing–inspired turn from a notoriously over-the-top actor. Turns out that both Killen and Voight had something more sophisticated in mind: a J. R. Ewing who keeps his braggadocio in careful reserve, a filthy-rich businessman who, befitting these challenging times, appears just as put-upon as your average accountant during tax season. “Dallas without the cheese” is how Killen described the show to the Television Critics Association this past summer, a statement that, for all its accuracy, also gave Lone Star short shrift. Because while the first two episodes of Lone Star contained all sorts of Jock Ewing–versus–J.R.–versus–Bobby echoes, Killen seemed to be evoking Dallas mostly so he could push beyond it.
Perhaps I’ve made the show sound ponderously full of itself, and perhaps that was Fox’s chief marketing hurdle: How do you sell Lone Star’s wicked and knowing sense of humor? Killen asked us to fall in love with a smooth-talking sociopath, a dicey proposition for network television. But that’s what boldly connected the show to Highsmith, who between 1955 and 1991 wrote five novels featuring the ultimate antihero, Tom Ripley—books that seem more relevant than ever in the age of Bernie Madoff, Tiger Woods, and Eliot Spitzer, when so many exalted public figures have been exposed as slick-operating fakes. None of Highsmith’s Ripley books are set here, but in imagining the title character, the author (who died in 1995) tapped into the quintessential trait of our state’s citizenry, that boundless capacity for both self-possession and reinvention: In Texas, you are who you want to be. Lone Star deftly spun this notion forward. For years, Robert/Bob has been thinking of going straight, but, much like Ripley, he can’t resist the challenge of another score. To be a truly successful Texan, Lone Star brazenly argued, you need to allow your inner con man to roam free.
Maybe Killen’s biggest misstep was in signing up with a major network; a show with such dark moral contours is usually more at home on HBO, Showtime, or AMC (think Big Love, Weeds, and Mad Men). In years past, Fox might have put more faith in the reviews and tried out Lone Star in a less competitive time slot. Another network might also have swooped in and attempted to relaunch the series in the spring. But as word of the show’s failure raced across the blogosphere, Lone Star took on the taint of damaged goods, a tumor to be quickly excised. Here’s hoping I’m wrong and that there’s someone who will find a way to give Lone Star a second life, maybe even as a feature film. For now, though, consider this an elegy for an exquisite mix of subtlety and flash, Greek tragedy and Texas twang. In other words, the next great Texas-based TV series that never was.
EMPTY PURSUIT: The missing thrill of Chase
The fall season’s other made-in-the-Metroplex drama got off to a rousing start, with a colorful, tightly edited foot chase through the Fort Worth Stockyards: Could Texas have been so lucky as to have landed two of the season’s best new shows? So close, yet so far. Turns out that Chase, which premiered on NBC in September, is a lot like producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s Cold Case and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—a flashy, fast-paced procedural with a fondness for grisly details (the pilot features a serial murderer who obtained his girlfriend’s engagement ring by cutting off another woman’s finger). The drama centers on beautiful but steely U.S. federal marshal Annie Frost (Kelli Giddish) and her team of Houston-based crime fighters, yet the cast (including Jesse Metcalfe, looking as if he got lost on the way to the set of Desperate Housewives) displays little personality, and the Texas settings quickly recede into the background. Hardly dreadful, but it doesn’t quite leave one hopeful for its future either.