Greatest TV Pilots: Lone Star’s fantastic pilot a victim of bad timing

The cast of Lone Star

The cast of Lone Star

Lone Star, “Pilot”
Written by Kyle Killen
Directed by Marc Webb
Aired September 20th, 2010 on Fox

Before everyone got to know James Wolk as the intriguing Bob Benson of Mad Men, he was the lead of the short-lived FOX series Lone Star. Notoriously short-lived, in fact- the series was cancelled after only two episodes, despite receiving rave reviews from critics. Lone Star was created by the then untested Kyle Killen, whose script for The Beaver was admired around Hollywood but, at that time, had yet to be produced. Along with Wolk, the series starred Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, David Keith, and Jon Voight, along with a supporting ensemble. The reason Lone Star failed to reach an audience, however, had little to do with its cast or creator, and certainly not its quality; it was a victim of terrible timing. With the US still reeling from the financial crisis of 2008, no one in America wanted to watch a series about a con man.

The pilot for Lone Star doesn’t pull its punches. The opening scene, a flashback, introduces us to a young Bobby and his con man father, John Allen (David Keith). Bobby scrambles to pack his life into a suitcase while an angry mark beats down the door of their hotel room. He’s clearly terrified, despite his father’s attempts to reassure him. This experience has happened before and will happen again, and this childhood will turn Bobby into either a replica of his father or a reaction to him. For a show centered on such a despised figure, particularly at the time, it’s important that we see our lead at his weakest and most vulnerable. As we’ll see, Robert/Bob (James Wolk) is still very much this scared boy, desperate to have a closet and some permanence, instead of a suitcase.

James Wolk and Eloise Mumford in the pilot to Lone Star

After flashing to the present and briefly getting to know Robert’s girlfriend, Lindsay, and his picturesque life in Midland, Texas, Killen reinforces the opening scene with a montage of Robert conning a series of marks out of their savings, promising a specialized drill and an extraction technique that will turn previously unusable rock (presumably something like shale?) into natural gas and liquid money. Perhaps this show would have been more palatable to viewers if we didn’t see Robert actively on the con, if we didn’t see his victims, but it would have been utterly dishonest as well. We see how good he is and we also see how miserable this makes him. He’s gregarious and cheerful on his flight out; afterwards he’s weary, with the barest of smiles left across his face. After a call home to Lindsay, we meet Cat and discover Robert is married and living a second, more privileged life in Houston. In the first six minutes of the pilot, we have met our lead and seen his three most important relationships- with his wife, his girlfriend, and his father.

The rest of the pilot sees Bob (as his Houston family knows him) getting a promotion that will put him high up in his father-in-law’s oil company, where he can take the company for millions before hitting the road. In Midland, the jig is up- a lawyer is inquiring about land rights and will shortly discover Robert doesn’t own any and therefore can’t have any wells. Robert has bilked his neighbors out of their life savings, including Lindsay’s parents, and it’s time to run. The trouble, in both cases, is that not only does Bobby hate this life, conning people, he truly loves both of these women and is desperate not to hurt them. His solution: he’ll work his new job straight and use his position there to turn the Midland scam into a real deal, or at least enough of one to pay his neighbors back. After getting his father ever so tentatively on board, Robert celebrates- he takes Lindsay to Vegas and they get married.

Mark Deklin, Adrianne Palicki, and James Wolk in the pilot for Lone StarOne would think this approach to the con man, the scammer with a heart of gold as it were, would be at least somewhat palatable to viewers, but perhaps this second bold move, having Robert say unabashedly, and honestly, that he loves both of these women and intends to remain married to them both, was too much for audiences to handle. Those few who tuned in, at least. Viewers love a likeable scoundrel trying to change his spots, particularly if he’s doing it for the love of a good woman (see Lost’s Sawyer for one recent example). For the love of two good women, though? Maybe not.

Watching this pilot, several things jump immediately to mind, the first being that it’s astonishing that a network signed off on this premise in the first place. It shows great taste and restraint from Fox. As much as they have been maligned by viewers over the years, particularly genre fans, for cancelling series like Lone Star, it’s important to remember that they gave the show a shot in the first place. They ordered it up, stayed out of Killen’s hair creatively (at least as far as these less viewer-friendly aspects are concerned), and marketed it (there was a significant push for this series at the time and it had a strong timeslot). Did they react hastily, pulling it so quickly? Probably. In today’s television landscape, this show would almost certainly have aired all its episodes, moved to a burnoff slot or saved for the summer. But Fox supported this series through development and its early production and without them, we wouldn’t have seen even the two episodes that did air.

Jon Voight and James Wolk in the pilot for Lone Star

This is an astonishingly strong pilot for such a tricky premise and a very confident debut for Killen. It’s refreshing to see such a subtle approach to such complicated emotions and storytelling. Marc Webb, director of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man, shoots it well and the casting throughout is fantastic. It’s great to see Voight in such a well-suited role and it would have been a lot fun to watch him play with the character over several years. Palicki, who gave a star-making performance on Friday Night Lights that somehow hasn’t translated to more and better roles, is great here and Mumford manages to make the earnest, sweet Lindsay more than the cliché small town girl she almost should be. David Keith is predictably good as the scoundrel father as well, but the breakout is James Wolk, whose thoughtful, layered performance only improves on repeat viewings.

As mentioned above, James Wolk has been a hit on Mad Men this season and he also left an impression during his stint on Happy Endings, but carrying a show, as this performance must, is a different beast entirely. Robert/Bob is a con man, so he must be believably charismatic and likeable, but Wolk is also playing Bobby, the scared, miserable child without a home. He needs to stand up to heavyweights Keith and Voight and create bonds with Palicki and Mumford meaningful and believable enough that the audience will buy into the premise. It’s a tall order, but Wolk pulls it off and manages to get the audience on his side to boot. Bobby’s desperation with his father is palpable- he’s barely holding on and that fear, that frailty, along with his determination to somehow put everything right, manages to pull the audience into rooting for him.

James Wolk and David Keith in the pilot for Lone StarPerhaps the most telling scene of the pilot is the tour of Robert’s supposed drill site. An investor, Larry (Tommy Townsend), has demanded to see the well, which of course doesn’t exist, and so Robert arranges a tour of an existing facility, posing as a location scout for a film. The casting of the mark is spot on, perhaps too good- when we see Robert not only put Larry’s fears to rest, but take this older, apparently proud and hardworking man for an additional $40k, our hearts break for him and, at the time, many must have identified strongly with his potential/eventual victimhood. It’s easy in these scenes to watch Townsend, who’s giving a strong performance, but if you watch Wolk, you’ll see Bobby’s eyes peering out through Robert’s face, his heart just as broken as the audience’s. He didn’t want to take more of this man’s money, but he can’t refund him either and, when Larry asks to invest further, there’s no reason he can give to save this man that won’t also give himself up. Counterpointed to this, of course, is Bobby’s father, who all but licks his chops when he sees Robert reel Larry back in. It’s a simple scene, but one that tells the viewer everything they really need to know about our lead and why he’s willing to try so dangerous a gambit to put things right, and wash himself clean of his past.

In the time since Lone Star came and went, its creator and most of its cast have continued to other, more successful projects. Killen had another critically acclaimed, under-watched one-season show in 2012 with Awake and has a new show headed to ABC this fall, Mind Games. Wolk is on Mad Men, Voight’s new series Ray Donovan premieres this week, Keith is on Hawaii Five-0, and Palicki and Mumford continue to work in features. Promising shows fall apart all the time due to creative or financial problems, usually without actually making it to air. Though we only got two episodes (come on, Fox- make the other produced, but shelved episodes available online!), at least this interesting, if doomed, series actually got to be seen. If you’re at all interested in this cast or this creator, or just good television in general, search out Lone Star. There have been few network pilots as good since.

Kate Kulzick

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

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