Series Premiere — Lone Star, “Pilot”

Lone Star is, without question, the best broadcast drama pilot I’ve seen since Friday Night Lights‘ premiere back in 2006. That comparison is interesting (aside from the obvious inclusion of Adrianne Palicki in both casts and the Texas location), because while watching this episode, I felt some of the same feelings as I did when FNL debuted.

Despite being a very, very high-concept series, Lone Star‘s pilot does a great job in skipping through the plot mechanization and getting down to the psyche of Robert/Bob Allen (played effectively by James Wolk) and how this proverbial house of cards is weighing down on him. And much like Friday Night Lights pilot, this effort is willing to let the actors roam around in dialogue-free sequences (that are all wonderfully matched with music, again like FNL) that really add life to the circumstances and make the characters feel lived in. There is, as with all pilots, a lot of exposition, but it’s always so eloquently handled that when combined with the aforementioned low-dialogue scenes, characters are easily formed without feeling too much like types.

But amid the sizable cast of characters, there’s Bob in the middle and without a multi-faceted performance from Wolk from the get-go, I’m not sure Lone Star works as a series (heck, I’m not even sure it works as a series, anyway, but we’ll get to that). Bob is supposedly the best con man who his con man father has ever seen and to pull off both the charming, con man/Sawyer-type scenes and still do some heavy dramatic lifting in multiple instances is very impressive. In general, there’s something of a high degree of difficulty in pulling off this premise in general and without Wolk’s ability to sell the suave charm and the simultaneous sadness in the eyes, Bob is immediately less likable.

While there’s question about what the series will be, the pilot suggests that Lone Star‘s going to deal with issues of personal identity. Bob’s caught in the middle of three separate identities, in love with two women and working all sorts of angles that there is bound to come a time that he’s not going to know which way is up. In fact, one could argue he faces a moment just like that when his dad comes to Midland and says it’s all coming down so he’s forced to make a run for it. And after witnessing another young man get manipulated by his father, Bob completely breaks down in a convenience store parking lot and makes a calculated move to ditch Lindsay and his middle-class identity. But before it’s all said and done, Bob regains control, uses his new “real” job to save his old fake life and marries Lindsay, meaning he’s got two wives he supposedly loves, none of which really knows who he is.

Meanwhile, the characters around Bob are staring down some identity issues themselves. Bob’s father John (David Keith) has raised his son to follow in his footsteps and now that Bob is so talented and able to actually turn a fake identity into a real one, John’s scrambling. I imagine that it’s been just the two of them for a long time and despite the school of hard knocks approach, John needs Bob around, both emotionally and financially. He’s probably too old to manufacture some long cons of his own and too young to be completely alone.

Additionally, Bob’s surrogate father, Clint Thatcher (played with the right amount of intensity and warmth by Jon Voight), is a bit lost as well. He’s one of Texas’ oldest and biggest oil tycoons, but in this economy, he’s floundering a little bit and now looking to Bob to lead his company into the next decade and beyond. Clint is someone with a lot of power and resources, but also someone who is willing to admit his mistakes. Just like John, Clint needs Bob to move forward.

The one weakness of the pilot, though a small one, is that neither of Bob’s women is very defined, but both obviously rely on Robert/Bob to keep their lives going. Lindsay (Eloise Mumford) doesn’t seem to care that he’s gone that often, but is certainly always happy when he’s back. Cat (Palicki) appears to be a well put-together woman of class and sophistication, but various press releases tell me she actually has a daughter from a high school ex-boyfriend (let me know if the pilot mentions this), so it’s apparent that she’s putting up something of a front or has at least tried to escape her mistakes from the past.

Everyone has been talking about it all summer, so I might as well mention it: Can Lone Star be a successful broadcast series, not just commercially but creatively? I do believe that it’s hard to tell, but there is enough story here for at least a strong 13 episodes. After that, I’m a little concerned and personally wish FOX could just give the series a shorter order. However, while certainly not the best position to be in, I think some unpredictability in direction is better than utter predictability. I mean, sure, this could end up like The Nine, but thus far, Lone Star is much better than that series and again, one of the best broadcast pilots of recent memory.

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