Lone Star — the best-reviewed, biggest-hyped freshman network series of 2010 — debuted last night and already there is much to discuss! There’s the breakout-star potential of smiley leading man James Wolk; the crass, who’d-you-rather-ness of bombshells Adrianne Palicki and Eloise Mumford; and the pressing question of whether Jon Voight’s Texan accent really does change from scene to scene like a Hypercolor shirt on the back of a nervous kid taking a math test.
But the pre-premiere hype has been dominated by a more inside-baseball sort of debate: Is Lone Star a network show or a cable show at heart? It’s a funny sort of question: In recent years, the networks have basically ceded the words “quality” and “ambitious” to their colleagues across the pay divide. Lone Star — about a bigamist con man caught between two lives and two families, 400 miles apart — attempts to reverse that trend. But let’s not start handing out CableACE awards just yet: Despite its twisty premise, clever writing, and gray morality, Lone Star is still a network show through and through. To wit: Every character is much younger and prettier than they have any right to be, and emotional scenes are buried under overly loud licensed pop songs. If subtle meta-commentary on our societal zeitgeist is your bag, then Lone Star isn’t going to be joining Breaking Bad on your
list of things to feel smug about DVR anytime soon. But bear with us: because this might actually be a good thing.
But first: the show itself! We begin as all shows about peripatetic con men should, with a suitcase. One rapidly being filled by a precocious little boy. Flashback alert! This is Bob, our hero, learning an important life lesson from his pappy: “Keep your life in a case, not in the closet.” And then they jump out the window to escape the wronged party currently bashing in their front door. WHOOSH! There go twenty years! And now Bob is (marginally) older, still cut, and still insisting on taking clothes out of a closet and putting them into a suitcase. Not helping him do this is Lindsay, Bob’s perky girlfriend and the only person on the show potentially younger than he is. Anyway, after his first sex of the day — spoiler alert! Bob has a lot of sex — Bob drives off to take checks from locals in exchange for his soothing talk about a “sort of underground blender.” Then he heads to Houston, lies to Lindsay about being “at the hotel,” and switches out his wallet and cell phone for another pair (Houston Bob has an iPhone. Classic Houston.) Instead of being at a hotel, Bob is at a palatial mansion where Tyra from Friday Night Lights is living. Fantastic! Anyway, this is Cat and she is Bob’s wife (!) and they blow off a charity “thing” in order to have more sex. The appetite on this guy!
This is Bob’s other reality: Cat is the daughter of ornery oilman Clint Thatcher who says things like “if you want to make something that lasts you’ve got to make it with your own two hands.” Clearly this man has never made his daughter a birthday cake! Despite being a hard-ass with a wavering accent, Clint has taken to Bob and offers him a job “on the 30th floor” of the company skyscraper (built by hand, no doubt) even though Bob doesn’t have an accent at all. Also at brunch: Clint’s younger son, Drew, a nice if hapless former high-school athlete and older son Trammell, who judging from his jugheaded, angry-model looks alone, is clearly going to be the bad guy. (Also: “Trammell”? Was Clint a big Detroit Tigers fan?)
Full of delicious lox (or whatever Texans eat at brunch), Bob hightails it to an abandoned storefront where he meets his father, John, delightfully played by that reliable slab of Southern beef, David Keith. It seems that Bob never stopped working for his father and worming his way into the lives of the Thatchers is all part of a long con — even Bob’s marriage to Cat, despite the abundant sex, is fake. This is the sort of pressure that could really grate on a person! “What if I took the job for real?” Bob asks his dad, still the 5-year-old boy climbing out the window and not the 25-year-old man-boy with the gorilla key chain and the double life. “What do you know about real?” snarls Paw. “You’re a con man, son. This is what you do. This is who you are. And you are better at it than anybody I have met in my entire life. Don’t go fooling yourself.” Well, okay then!
But the rule of television is “show, don’t tell” (not to be confused with “show and tell” which is the rule of kindergarten), so we follow Bob as he swindles a kindly old rancher: first bribing a foreman at a real well and then showing the old coot around as if he owns the place, getting an assist from his dad who pretends to work there. Bob, we discover, is good because he’s willing to use his natural kindness (and dimples!) in the service of the crime: He brings cash to give the old man his money back, claiming friendship is more important to him than profit. Of course the old man wants both: He tells Bob to put the cash away and give him even more shares in the fraudulent project. Bob is good. But he’s also Good. And the thing is, he can’t be both.
Or can he! And here is where Lone Star makes the totally predictable, yet kind of fun play for mass appeal: Bob tries to have it both ways. He accepts the job in Houston but does it (apparently) legitimately. He does have a knack with people and paperwork and soon enough is bucking up the nervous Drew by letting him make his own play for a windfarm (Environmentalism! Also “good”!). But he also refuses to do what he should and abandon sweet, clueless Lindsay out in Midland. There, after the sort of idealized afternoon that all children of itinerant con men dream about — moonbounce, kegs, kindly in-laws, and Jose Gonzalez’s cover of the Knife’s “Heartbeats” on the stereo (!) — Bob punches out Lindsay’s trailer-park (though still handsome!) ex, Travis (“Welcome to the TX, Bitch!” —Bob) and realizes he can’t leave this life, despite his father showing up and warning him that authorities are on to him. (We have a feeling that the apparently easy drive between Houston and Midland is going to be to this show what the apparently easy drive between Scranton and Manhattan is to The Office. Which is to say: something unbelievable we’re going to have to all agree to just ignore.)
And so: Bob, newly suited, uses his placement on the 30th floor (and a spare million bucks) to buy some land near Midland. The goal: to make the scheme that was about to fleece an entire town (including Lindsay’s trusting parents) a reality. He even tells his dad to eat his own damn pancakes: He’s going solo and making something real, John’s lifelong dream of “moving to an island full of topless women” be damned. (Has he tried Temptation Island?) Trammell’s effort to bust Bob in front of Clint by revealing that he (Bob) hasn’t really been staying in the fancy hotels he claims to stay in backfires when Bob spins a nonsense story about preferring motels. In return, Jon Voight gives Bob the key to
his heart the office. And the hour ends with Bob in Las Vegas. About to get married (again) only this time to Lindsay. “I make my own luck,” he says.
“Oh really!” we say. But we say it with a smile and hoping for the best. Because there is a lot of promise here amid the preposterously high stakes. The cast is strong (and good looking!), the setting rich and the people behind the scenes (creator Kyle Killen wrote The Beaver, a buzzed-about movie starring Mel Gibson that will probably never be released, and show-runners Amy Lippman and Chris Keyser ran Party of Five) intriguing. As we said at the top, the fact that this is on a network — rather than, say, AMC — is cause for optimism: Ambition shouldn’t just be the province of those who drive BMWs. And, to our mind at least, the idea of someone trying to fight their way out of a bad situation instead of sinking deeper into one is a promising — not to mention more mainsteam-friendly — wrinkle. Sure, there are plenty of pitfalls: A show about a con man is one thing — a show about a con man already established as being trapped in his own cons is another, slightly more challenging thing. After all, how many times can someone pull at a thread before Bob’s entire double life unravels? Plus: rooting for Bob is one thing. Glossing over the fact that he is, uh, a morally suspect polygamist is the sort of complicated pothole that networks have traditionally had very little interest in exploring. Will Lone Star, like its likable leading man, be able to have it both ways? We suppose we’ll find out soon enough.
What did everyone else think?