It’s been a tumultuous year for Kyle Killen. The young writer’s critically adored con man drama Lone Star earned the full support of the Fox network and landed a cushy, post-House time slot, yet debuted so low in the ratings this past week that Killen wrote an open letter to fans to drum up support for the show’s second (and potentially final) airing this Monday. That would be enough for any writer to have to deal with, except that Killen already went through a similar set of ups and downs earlier this year when Jodie Foster’s dark comedy The Beaver (based on Killen’s well-regarded Black List script) was suddenly spun off into limbo after damaging audiotapes of star Mel Gibson surfaced in the press. Killen called up Vulture today to discuss his reaction to the ratings, his future plans for Lone Star, and his thoughts on The Beaver (and Gibson’s performance).
How are you feeling right now?
I don’t know, I think maybe “delusionally hopeful”? I mean, obviously it’s a deep hole to be in, but I don’t know. We’ll wait and see.
Well, tell me how you felt going into the season premiere. It was said that this was a pet project of Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly — did you feel that network support?
Oh, absolutely. The time slot has been chewed over a lot since Monday, but going into it, it actually felt like the highest possible compliment they could pay us to put us after their leading drama in what seemed like a plum spot that used to be great for 24. It didn’t feel like being thrown to the wolves at all, it felt like this was the best possible place they could think of to put us. I think everyone felt like it’s definitely a different kind of show for television and that it might not catch fire immediately. I will be honest: No one thought it would land the way it did.
Had you heard anything about how the ratings were tracking? Did you have some warning on this?
I didn’t. There may have been some, but I may not have been intelligent enough to understand it. This is my first go-round in TV, so my understanding is that our testing had gone well and that we had the amount of support we needed to pull off a number that would allow us to survive. Honestly, I cannot fathom that there was any indication [of the ratings] we would get back. I think everyone was gobsmacked Tuesday morning, from the network on down.
How did it feel when you saw those ratings?
Honestly, people thought there was a number missing. Maybe there was a Nielsen outage, or something heavy fell on a lot of people? It just really seemed like it had to be an error, but it wasn’t. That’s how it goes sometimes when you take a big swing: You miss.
So what do you think it came down to? Why do you think it didn’t hit in the ratings?
I’m not totally positive. I think there’s a lot of theories out there, but I don’t know that I have a good pet theory. The people who watched it dug it, but if you only tuned in for five or ten minutes, it doesn’t quite have the same flow as what you would run into on a network television show. On a night where there’s a lot of stuff that does have that flow that you know and are used to, if you look at the numbers, that’s [where viewers went]. The people who made it for the hour seemed to enjoy it and indicated that they would be back — I just need them to bring an army of their friends [for the next episode].
Like you said, a lot of critics noted that it felt more like a cable show than a network show. I’m sure that felt like a compliment going into it, but did it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do you feel like there is a place for a show like this on network TV?
That is a great question. I think we’re as close to a litmus test as you’re going to get. Going all the way back to last season, Fox was looking for a cable show to try on network television, I had a cable pitch that felt like it could work, and I think everyone was very excited. Normally when you go in to pitch, you can’t reference shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, because while they are critically acclaimed and rack up awards, they pull the kind of numbers that would get you canceled on network television. The belief and the hope was really that [it wasn’t because of] the quality of those shows, it’s a function of the fact that they are buried on slightly more obscure cable networks, and that if you could put that kind of material on one of the Big Four, you could actually get a big, big audience. People don’t reject quality, they just have trouble finding those things. That’s what we shot for.
One of the things that was said even by people who were big fans of the show was that it seemed more like a movie than a television pilot, in that it didn’t really announce what future episodes and especially future seasons of Lone Star could be like. What was your plan for this show, and how do you see it continuing, if it should?
It’s odd, because I can see that and relate to it. It’s extremely difficult to write, and there’s a lot of high-wire-act balancing to do, but at the same time, it’s actually primed for the story to spin off in lots of directions. You have a guy who’s trying to go straight, you have a father who isn’t particularly supportive of that idea and doesn’t seem excited about giving up now that they’re about to cross the finish line, you’ve got a guy who’s involved in two marriages and has fairly complicated family situations on both sides … I mean, there’s actually a lot of toys in the sandbox to play with. In terms of a first-season arc, we had a first-season trajectory that would really track Bob and his father in the wake of Bob deciding that he wanted to do something different, and his father not being willing to let him go quite that easily. I don’t know, what can I say? We remain pretty stoked about telling that story.
Would it be a completely different show if it were to make it to season two? It’s hard to imagine the idea that Bob would be able to keep juggling the same things.
I think it would evolve. We wouldn’t do a 24-style blow-up where one thing is over and the new thing begins and all that we’re dealing with is the fact that we have some of the same characters. It would be much more of a significant evolution; I hate to keep referencing Breaking Bad, but it does it so well, where the character starts dealing with one very specific problem, and eventually that problem may go by the wayside, but now you’re in a different place with him and everyone else in his world. I think that the show feels like you’re still hooked in, but you’re not trying to solve the same problem you began with. Now you’re just following these characters on their lifelong journey.
Do you think the infidelity of the main character was a stumbling block for network TV? Obviously, we’ve seen so many cable antiheroes who aren’t exactly monogamous — there’s Don Draper, Tony Soprano, and you’ve got the family on Big Love — but that hasn’t quite worked on network TV, especially if you look at another smart drama that this reminded me of, Swingtown.
It very well may have been an issue. I think that two things were going to be polarizing about the show: One is the fact that for lack of a better word, he’s ultimately a bigamist, and the other is that he’s a con man. Neither one of those things is particularly sympathetic or inviting, but I think if you watch the show past that, what I hope is interesting is that it’s not quite that simple. Being a bigamist for him is that he genuinely believes he is in love with two different women. He is incapable of letting either one of them go, and somehow, that doesn’t feel like the right answer. He may be completely wrong, but his belief is genuine and I think you’re watching him struggle with it.
It may be premature to ask, but have you thought about options like a DirecTV save for the show?
At the moment, I am super-focused on seeing what we can do next Monday night. Beyond that, obviously, everyone involved with the show is super-excited about it and would love to see it live on any way it can. I honestly believe the best place for it is Fox. I really think that if it has a chance to grow and stick to the wall and ooze down a little bit longer, I feel like we could be right about everything we guessed, that you can do this on network television and if enough people see it a couple times, cable doesn’t have to be the only place that you can tell these kinds of stories. I still think Fox could pull it off, and we would be extraordinarily happy to stay right where we are.
Now, I know you were the screenwriter of The Beaver as well, so I would imagine that this year has felt like the best of times and the worst of times.
It’s definitely been an adventure. It’s definitely been an adventure.
How does this compare to that? How did you feel when that film’s future suddenly became unclear this summer?
They’re so different, the feature and television worlds. When you write a feature, you essentially give your child up for adoption and you screen all the people who come by and you really hope that they don’t raise it to be, like, a Satanist. After that, though, your contact is fairly limited, and you just hope, and I continue to hope for The Beaver. With TV, you are in it every single day, and it’s what you do from seven in the morning to eleven o’clock at night. It’s not like having a baby, it’s like having triplets, and it requires all of your focus and attention. You’re invested through every minute of the day.
Have you seen The Beaver yet?
I have, or I have seen a cut of it. I can’t tell you how it’s ultimately going to turn out because it’s not finished, but everything else aside, all I can say is that Mel Gibson’s performance is really arresting. It’s fairly stunning, and in a weird way, incredibly resonant given everything that’s gone on. Whether or not anyone ever sees that and what they will bring to it when they finally do, I have no idea, but it’s an impressive piece of work.
Have you heard anything about the release? I felt like there were some possible award season feelers going out via Deadline this week …
I would say, “Yes, I have heard about it,” but it sounds like I’ve heard about it from the same sources as you. I’m just looking at the Internet like you are and saying, “That’s interesting,” but I have no actual knowledge.