Last night, I watched the credits to Lone Star roll with a sinking heart. The Texas grifter drama launched last week, got great reviews, a decent time slot — and ratings that stunk up the joint. And then, that familiar tailspin: critics nagging viewers to watch, a wry letter from the show-runner, an aura of doom and backlash. And the second episode hadn't even aired!
I was almost hoping to feel let down, so I wouldn't feel bad if it gets axed. But last night’s episode was terrific all over again, dammit — and even worse, it's the single truly interesting and original new drama this season. And if this sucker gets canceled (and it's likely it will: Last night's ratings were just as bad, and dropped in the second half-hour), I’ll be pissed. Because this isn’t some precious auteurist gem like Arrested Development or Firefly — great series, sure, but highly specific tastes, designed for a niche audience.
In contrast, Lone Star is a fat, glossy commercial thriller, starring a dreamy, frequently naked man. It’s not homework — it’s hypnotic. The themes speak to our age of the swindle and all, but mostly, it’s one of those con plots pulled by Sawyer from Lost, but three layers psychologically juicier and with Jon Voight stomping around Texas oil fields. And don't tell me we can't deal with off-putting antiheroes: the lead-in for this is House, for God's sake.
The premise is both simple and complex: Bob is a con man with two wives, one a small-town girl, one a fancy-pants oil heiress. He's trying to pull off a seemingly impossible meta-con: He wants to go straight, pay off one swindle with the gains from the other, and somehow maintain his doubled romantic life. He's a sociopath we root for, just like our pal Dexter on Showtime — plus empathy, minus chainsaw.
Last night’s episode began truly clicking when Bob's grifter dad (David Keith) swindled tenants to raise funds: a montage of checks extracted, keys handed over, that casual remark to an innocent young couple (“Are you excited?”) belying his lizard eyes. And with each scene, more promising plot tumblers fell into place. After eloping with his small-town girlfriend, Bob plans a real wedding, meets his shit-stirrer of a sister-in-law, and finds his new family asking uncomfortable questions. He inserts his resentful father into the oil company owned by his big-city father-in-law, which is pretty much like placing a rattlesnake in a cubicle and tugging a tie around its neck.
The show looks like Dallas, but it's subtle, not campy, about the family fractures that leave space for a con: the sublimated resentment between two wealthy brothers, the sweet case of denial in his small-town wife. The scene when our sociopathic hero sees how much he has in common with his basket case of a sister-in-law was particularly fascinating. But the most potent element last night was the envy boiling off Bob's real father — his fury at being condescended to by a father-in-law who was supposed to be his mark, not his competition.
“The only houses you ever pulled me out of were the ones you set on fire,” complains Bob about his father, and now it appears that the show is in as much trouble as he is. By the end of the first season, Bob will likely have to kill someone to keep this sweet life afloat. I'd love to see what happens when one of his wives finds out what's really going on. But it's likelier that you're about to read a set of postmortems, all about why network dramas are so much less ambitious than their cable peers, and why, kids, this is why we can't have nice things.