Press tour: ‘Lone Star’ & ‘Running Wilde’ turn question marks into periods

Senior Television Writer
08.03.10 12 Comments


From a content-generating standpoint, press tour can be enormously valuable. So many people to interview, so many possible stories, so many brains to pick. But as a critic whose job it so often is to review a series based solely on a pilot episode – or to predict how an older show might rebound from a disappointing season – the tour is most useful in helping to push me one way or the other on shows where my opinion comes with reservations.

Simply put, if I had a concern about a pilot or a series and find out that the creative team shares that concern – and, even better, has some thoughts on how to properly address it – that goes a long way in helping to shape my ultimate opinion. Conversely, if they aren’t troubled by what I was, or if it becomes clear that they think the strength of their show is different from what I do, then my concerns only increase.

We had a couple of instances of this with veteran shows last week, when the “How I Met Your Mother” creators said all the right things about where season five went astray, and where Paul Lieberstein from “The Office” said he thought the show’s most recent year was “a strong season.” Obviously, actions will count more than words, and it’s possible that “HIMYM” might stay adrift even as the creators try to return to the series’ romantic side, just as it’s possible that Lieberstein was being diplomatic and/or that the show rebounds anyway. But I’ve found more often than not that when showrunners say they see their show the way I do, that it’s apparent in the finished product.

Yesterday, meanwhile, we had a couple of panels for new shows that had decidedly mixed reactions from the critics – Fox’s “Lone Star” and “Running Wilde” – where it felt like the room came away much more confident about their prospects. Some thoughts and quotes after the jump…

Of all the network pilots, “Lone Star” – about a con man (interesting newcomer James Wolk) determined to go straight if he can ever decide between the wife (Adrianne Palicki) and the girlfriend (Eloise Mumford) he’s been conning – seems to have drawn the most favorable opinions from the TCA, but always with this caveat:

Great pilot, but is it a series?

Wolk is very strong, the show looks great (the pilot was directed by Marc Webb from “500 Days of Summer”), there are good supporting performances by Jon Voight and David Keith, everything moves nicely, etc., but Wolk’s elaborate web of lies feels like the sort of thing that might feel convoluted and dragged-out by episode four, let alone the end of a full season. The creator, Kyle Killen, has no experience in television, and even though he’s being supported by “Party of Five” vets Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman, there can be a sense that TV newcomers don’t realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

But the creative team had a lot of smart and interesting things to say about how “Lone Star” would have to adapt in order to work in the long-term.

“I think the show will need to reinvent itself periodically,” said Lippman, “and I think we look at shows that have a very strong premise going into, shows that we refer to in the writers” room, shows like ‘Breaking Bad,’ for example, that start with a very strong premise and by season 2 have turned it in some way. And I think that”s our challenge, is to keep it going, to keep it fresh and not to replay the same dynamic over and over again. So we certainly have a sense of where we”re going this season with it, with the understanding that, if we”re lucky enough to be back in front of you next year, that something will be significantly changed in the show.”

Killen said, in fact, “My understanding was that (FOX execs) were looking to try a cable show on network, and if we signed up with them, that this would be something that they would give us the leeway to really try that. When you go out and you pitch shows, the truth is the things that you watch, the things that you love – ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men’ – they”re dirty words in pitch meetings because they”re shows that have a number of viewers that would get a show canceled on the network. So even if you respect them creatively and you want to say, ‘This is what we hope to be. This is what we want to put on air,’ your people will tell you, ‘Talk about “Dallas.”’ And I think at FOX, it wasn”t a dirtyword. At FOX they felt like the only reason those shows aren”t more popular is because they”re not on FOX and because they don”t have this machine. They don”t have this opportunity behind them. And I think we”re going to get that.”

Keyser talked about how Killen’s pilot script has a lot of different levels the writing staff can play around in – the various confidence schemes that Wolk and Keith are involved in, more soap opera-style plotlines involving the two worlds Wolk lives in, etc. – so the show won’t have to burn through story too quickly.

“If anything,” he said, “I think we”re finding that, as we begin, there”s so much to do, that we need to parcel it out from episode to episode, not that we don”t have (enough).”

It was a group of smart people saying smart things, and ultimately Killen scored his biggest points with a bit of candor.

“I have no idea if this was a good idea for a network show,” he confessed, “but I feel like they”re willing to find out with the boldest, craziest version of it. If it”s a failure, I think it”s going to be a spectacular failure, and I like that idea. And ultimately, I think that”s why we are where we want to be.”

As for “Running Wilde” – in which Will Arnett plays a spoiled rich playboy trying to become better to win the heart of childhood crush Keri Russell –  everybody in the room wants to love it – at least, everybody in the room who already loved “Arrested Development,” since this one was created by “Arrested” alums Mitch Hurwitz, Jim Vallely and Arnett himself. But the reaction I had to the pilot, and that a lot of other critics seemed to, was that it felt rushed and half-finished.

Fortunately, Hurwitz and company felt the same way.

“We were very rushed in making a very ambitious pilot,” Hurwitz said. “We didn”t have a lot of prep, and I think we had like six or seven days of post (production), which is from the end of shooting to delivering the thing. It”s a very short amount of time. And that affects everything. That affects casting. That affects how much time you get to spend with the characters finding it. So we threw a lot of stuff out there very quickly, and we were able to look at it and say, ‘You know, here”s where we”re not as invested in the characters.'”

Several roles have been recast (David Cross was supposed to play Russell’s boyfriend but wasn’t available for the pilot, and is now on board), others have been recast and reconceived, and it sounds like nearly every aspect of the show is being looked at from top to bottom by Hurwitz, Vallely, Arnett and Fox president Kevin Reilly, one of the few network execs in the business whose creative notes are usually welcomed by his producers.

“We went through nine, ten drafts of this thing,” said Hurwitz, “and every time Kevin would give us some very specific idea, and we would curse, and we would gnash our teeth, and then we would say, ‘He”s right. It”s getting a little better. It”s getting a little better.'”

Again, it’s entirely possible that the finished version of “Running Wilde” still won’t work – that perhaps Arnett worked wonderfully as a side dish on a Hurwitz/Vallely show but shouldn’t be the main course – just as it’s possible that all the “Lone Star” storylines will come crashing down by episode 11 or 12. But after yesterday, I’m feeling a lot more optimistic than when I first watched each pilot.

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