All con men are storytellers. How else do you win the confidence of your marks before fleecing them?
And all storytellers (and specifically TV storytellers, for the purposes of this review) are con men. How else do you win the confidence of an audience that the journey they’re prepared to accompany you on will be worth the time and the effort?
Some storytellers play the short con. The writers behind “House” or “CSI” or “Castle” only need to fool you and misdirect you for 43 minutes before offering resolution.
Some storytellers play a midrange con. The writers on “Dexter” or “Damages” know that they’re telling a story that unfolds one season at a time, rather than one episode at a time.
And some storytellers play a long con. Whether you loved it or hated it, the “Lost” writers had a point they needed to reach and six seasons in which to reach it. On “The Shield,” Shawn Ryan started a story in the pilot and everything for the rest of the show’s run tied back into the events of that pilot, right up the the devastating finale.
Sometimes you can tell from the first episode of a show exactly how long the con is going to be. I’m pretty confident, for example, that CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” is a short con and equally confident that no matter when and how “The Event” ends its con, I’ll be the poorer for dedicating that duration.
But with FOX’s new drama “Lone Star”? I’ll confess that I’m flummoxed, but maybe not in a bad way. After watching the pilot, I can’t tell exactly what the series is, much less what the duration of its con is going to be. With bad pilot or even a mediocre pilot, I’d be cautious or even concerned.
“Lone Star,” though, is the best network pilot of the fall. Maybe I’m not sure about the long-term durability of the show. Maybe I’d have loved to see a second and third episode before writing my review, as I would with a cable show. But if my job as a critic is to answer the question, “Would you recommend viewers tune in?” My answer would be, “Absolutely.”
The first episode of “Lone Star” is a winner and I guess we’ll just have to go on the rest of the journey together.
[More after the break…]
Just in case the intro to this review was cryptic, “Lone Star” features relative newcomer James Wolk as Bob Allen, who grifts with his father John (David Keith), who calls him the best con man he’s ever seen.
Bob has an easy smile, a natural glint in his eye and he could sell ice cubes to Eskimos, or non-alcoholic beer to Gary Busey, whichever seems more complicated.
As our story opens, Bob and his dad are in the midst of two simultaneous cons, one involving old rigs in Midland and the other in Houston involving a far bigger game, as he weasels his way into the upper echelon of a major corporation, one run by Jon Voight’s Clint Thatcher.
In the Houston con, he’s somehow married Clint’s daughter Cat (Adrianne Palicki) and won the trust of at least one of his brothers-in-law, in Bryce Johnson’s Drew.
In the other, he’s living with wholesome girl-next-door Lindsay (Eloise Mumford) and he’s become part of the community, a community he’s steadily bilking.
Bob may be the best con man his very capable father has ever seen, but he’s made the cardinal mistake for bodyguards, prostitutes and grifters alike: He’s fallen in love. And, to make matters worse, he’s fallen in love with both women.
Like Dexter’s helpful pop, only more corporeal, John Allen is full of helpful advice, but none more helpful than this: “You can play any character you want, but never play yourself. That’s what lets you walk away when the time is right.”
Or maybe none more helpful than this: “Son, this is a house of cards. You don’t get to live in it.”
Bob, however, is determined to follow the advice of wife Lindsay, who tells him, “People who believe that they can have it all, they’re the ones who end up with everything.”
She, of course, doesn’t know about his other life, or perhaps she wouldn’t be so helpful.
Kyle Killen’s script plays on big ideas about identity and the ways in which we construct our own lives and he crafts the structure of his script so well that I was never, for a second, offended by broad declarations like the ones above. These are all people who live by codes, codes that they’re capable of articulating at a moment’s notice.
The crucial job of selling the premise, though, falls on director Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and the talented cast, both young and old.
What Webb does, which is crucial, is allow viewers to have fun with the story. Watching the pilot, it feels effortless, but it’s not. There’s a strong possibility for darkness if you stop to think about what Bob is doing to the people who love him and who he professes to love, but Webb keeps the tone light-ish and the pace lively. Eventually, the show is bound to become angsty, but for the pilot, Bob’s balancing act is between worlds he wants to be a part of and things he does well. Webb might rely a little heavily on soundtrack choices and traveling montages, but that conveys that Bob’s life is one that’s in constant transit.
It’s a lot to put on an actor without a lengthy track record, but just as Bob hornswoggles everyone around him, Wolk is sure to hornswoggle viewers as well. Actors are, after all, con men as well and Wolk is most convincing when his character is selling himself, both as a businessman and as a lover. You never doubt that aspect of his performance for a second, but I’ll confess to some minor hesitation regarding his execution in the character’s moments of isolated self-doubt. Part of me thinks the problem there may just be inexperience. Part of me wonders if Wolk is playing those moments awkwardly because these are emotions the character may not have experienced before. If it’s the former? Well, who knows. If it’s the latter? That’s plenty impressive. My initial notes from my first viewing of the pilot describe Wolk as “Kyle Chandler mixed with Zac Efron.” Your comparison may vary.
You can see why the ladies would fall in love with Bob/Wolk and both Mumford and Palicki are terrific, and spectacularly attractive, in presenting two viable alternatives for his love. I’m not sure I’d ever registered Mumford before, but she comes across as down-to-earth, freshly scrubbed and unguarded. She has broad features that convey amazing amounts of earnest emotion. This is a nice transition for “Friday Night Lights” favorite Palicki, who doesn’t just leave behind Tyra Collette’s blonde locks, but she also gets to play older and more polished, a young woman accustomed to upper crust social gatherings.
Just as Mumford and Palicki are two sides of a romantic coin, Keith and Voight offer two alternative father figures for Bob. Both performances are excellent because they offer the possibility of being both nurturing, but also adversarial, depending on the direction the plot goes.
And where will the plot go? Who knows. Clearly the basic house-of-cards is not endlessly sustainable. At some point, we inevitably fall into familiar suspense tropes where folks begin to get suspicious and Bob has to scramble and somebody finds out and yada yada yada. From there, though, is the show about the con? Is the show about the soap opera? Is the show a domestic melodrama?
I return again to something that I mentioned with Sepinwall on the podcast: If “Lone Star” were on a cable network, I wouldn’t worry as much. It’s not that 13-episode cable storytelling is generally easier, but it’s easier for this sort of totally arced serialized programming. The recent tendency in primetime, carefully arced soap operas has been to burn through too much narrative too quickly, “Desperate Housewives” or “The O.C.” style. That doesn’t mean you can’t avoid those traps or that you can’t recover quickly from them, nor does it mean that a show can’t frequently reinvent itself, if the creative talent — Killen is joined by ace producers Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, plus directing producer Peter Horton — is strong enough.
But the future isn’t what I’m reviewing today. I’m reviewing the present. And for the present, new network pilots don’t get any better than “Lone Star.”
“Lone Star” premieres at 9 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 20 on FOX.