Lone Star Lament: A Q&A with Kyle Killen
October 1st, 2010
While the online narrative about Lone Star‘s demise considered the show as an example of the divide between cable and network, or as a sign that critical praise actually hurts television series, I personally chose to take something positive: although I was sad to see the show progress into the rest of its first season, which I think had the potential to be a very good television series, I was pleased to see that creator/writer Kyle Killen seemed to be approaching the cancellation with a sense of purpose (in putting himself out there to promote the series between the first and second episodes) and class (by resisting any sort of vitriolic response to its cancellation).
As a result, I was extremely excited for Killen’s appearance at Flow 2010, a television and media conference at the University of Texas at Austin; not only would it give us a chance to learn more about the series, but I could also see whether or not my impression of Killen (pieced together from interviews, tweets and some press tour quotes) would hold in person. During the Q&A after a screening of the series’ pilot, Killen was honest about the show’s failure, open to more complex discussions of the series’ gender representations, and realistic about the way the television industry operates. While the show’s failure identifies much of the cruelty in terms of how the industry evaluates a series’ success, Killen rose above the victim narrative and focused on what he learned from the process, what he wishes he could have achieved, and how he feels about how the process unfolded.
The result was a glimpse into a world of disappointment that, even after learning that we’d be screening the pilot instead of the unfinished third episode, was not close to being disappointing in and of itself.
In his discussion, Killen suggested the following similes regarding the difference between cable and network television. Cable television, he argued, is like when someone kidnaps your dog and threatens to shoot it unless you create something generally worth their time; network television, however, is like when someone kidnaps your dog and threatens to shoot it if they become bored at any time. It’s a point which nicely points out that there are creative challenges to creating both network and cable television, but the risk factor is simply so much more substantial with networks: there isn’t the same kind of breathing room, which is why shows like Terriers and Rubicon survive while Lone Star disappears.
What was so interesting to me is that Killen is more resigned than defeated. While he is clearly disappointed with the results, he has a very clear mind about what happened if not necessarily why it happened. It’s also important to note here that I speak not of FOX canceling the show but instead of people not watching the show. Killen had no ill words for the people at FOX, stressing the Kevin O’Reilly and Peter Rice were fans of the series and legitimately wanted it to succeed, and that he had no concerns over how FOX was marketing the series. There was no sense of network intervention compromising his creative vision, nor was there a sense that that kind of compromise existed without being mentioned. This is someone who was given a clear edict to create a certain type of show, who delivered that show to the network, and who became a victim of viewership numbers rather than any sort of conflict with executives and the like.
Speaking about whether he felt the show should have gone to cable, Killen stressed that all four networks were interested in the project when he took meetings with them, which told him that this was a network show – if it wasn’t, why would they be interested? Perhaps we would argue that he should have known that the kinds of stories he wanted to tell were found primarily on cable (Breaking Bad came up a lot at press tour), but when you have someone willing to buy your show, and telling you that they will let you make the show you want to make, you take that deal (especially when we consider the additional budget it would allow over basic cable). It may perhaps have been seen as idealistic, believing that FOX’s experiment with cable on network would actually work, but I think it is both reasonable and perhaps even smart to want to be the person knocking on network’s door just in case viewers let you in.
Killen really had nothing bad to say about the series’ development, since at every point the signs looked pretty good: it sold well with advertisers, the executives seemed excited about it, and the critical response was impressive. There is no real warning sign there, which is why the complete lack of reception from audiences was so clearly disappointing to all parties involved. He talked about the advertising campaign, which some have criticized for selling a too narrow definition of the series, but he actually worried that the campaign would sell the show too well and potentially create expectations for a sexy drama series which Lone Star was not intended to be (and thus lead to viewers abandoning the series once they realized it was “slow”) more than he worried about it alienating viewers.
Instead of attacking of criticizing certain industry practices, he took the high ground without the sense that he was doing so in an effort to avoid delving into highly critical statements regarding the series’ treatment. For example, in answering a question about the series’ representation of its female characters (or the lack thereof) in the pilot, he noted that the original pilot script did a better job of it; however, when edited together, that script resulted in a 61 minute episode when he was only being given 43. He is obviously frustrated that there is no way around this, but the industry was established long before he arrived, and as someone new to TV he is refreshingly accepting of its various quirks. He laments the ridiculous nature of the Nielsen ratings without outright attacking them, and he responds to the mention of FOX potentially holding the show until after premiere week with a nuanced take that perhaps the Darwinian nature of that week is good for television as a whole. For someone who is actually new to television, he has comfortably accepted certain realities and chosen to simply do his own thing within that framework.
When he spoke about his interaction with fans (and non-fans) on Twitter, he noted that this was not something he discussed with the network, nor something he thought would “become a thing.” He talked about how it gave him that sense of hope, that there were perhaps people out there who didn’t watch but might watch again, who could help the show pull off a stunning upset and start trending upwards. Ultimately it wasn’t enough the save the series, but I think it created a profile for him as a writer which will serve him quite well in the future, and offered an interesting case study for future showrunners who choose to engage with fans from the beginning (or perhaps even before the beginning) in this fashion (which, if you missed it a few weeks ago, I wrote about a bit for Antenna).
However, thankfully, we did not only talk about the show’s paratextual life, also focusing on the text in and of itself. My question spoke specifically to whether or not there was any discussion of joining the story at an earlier stage as opposed to joining the story already in progress: my theory was that at some point someone might have thought that a procedural about a con man who slowly falls in love with two women and becomes conflicted with his double life may have been better able to draw in curious viewers than a very clearly defined scenario about a man banging two women (not to reduce it to that, but that does sort of stand out for casual viewers). Ultimately, though, Killen suggested that the central conflict of Robert and his father felt like it would be enough to allow the series to move forward, and that he wanted to maintain that complexity from the very beginning. I would personally be very interested to see what the series would have looked at if it was focused in the origin rather than the consequences of Robert’s current predicament, but if the series had continued in this fashion we we would have been waiting for a Thanskgiving-themed ninth episode before delving into these questions, as the episode would include flashbacks to the origins of the two relationships.
He also went into how the series would continue on had it been renewed: without offering details, he confirmed that he had mapped out the first season, and had a sense of the final scene which would create a new conflict for the second year. It seemed to suggest that he had looked at each season as a different situation, which could have potentially dealt with lingering concerns over the longevity of the pilot’s situation. Another issue raised was that he intended on interrogating the notion that Robert was actually in love with these two women, separating the series’ point of view from Robert as a character (which was one of the consequences of streamlining the pilot). It is clear that there was a lot of story that he wanted to tell, and so to get to hear some of that was a bit bittersweet but ultimately compelling from a scholarly (and critical) perspective.
At the end of the Q&A, the final question seemed at first to be a bit trivial: while a discussion of the series’ use of music was interesting, it seemed like there were bigger concepts and ideas (like the potential for a future cable deal) which went unasked in favor of something ultimately quite minute. However, in his answer, Killen noted that the reason the music skewed independent was that it was simply cheaper: it was, in other words, about maximizing your resources. And I think this sort of describes Killen’s perspective as a whole: considering the path he was given as a creator of a network drama series, he seemed to have gotten a great deal of creative control, a prominent (if not necessarily effective) marketing campaign, and a pretty darn solid cast. Ultimately, Killen did the best he could with the resources available, and creatively speaking he has to be happy with the result (considering how compromised the show could have been).
Ultimately, though, Killen is resigned to its fate: rather than being defeated by the show’s swift cancellation, he has accepted that the experiment that was Lone Star has failed. Based on what he offered tonight, building on his work online regarding the series, I am excited to see his next experiment, and hope that the sort of grounded sense of self he currently exhibits will not be in any way compromised by the fallout from this series of events.
- In case you were wondering, the third episode apparently wasn’t available because they didn’t bother finishing it once production halted earlier in the week, which meant it wasn’t completed and FOX is unwilling the release the unfinished episode.
- Another tidbit from the panel: upon realizing that the show was likely dead, the first thing he did was write an epilogue which he could send to the cast in order to offer them some closure.
- Equally interesting was the discussion that the show would have run into the common problem of not knowing where to put the “end” of the season had it remained in limbo for an extended amount of time: because Killen had the end of the season mapped out, there would have been concerns over whether they should make it the end of Episode 13 (in case they are canceled) or whether they should onto it for an Episode 22 that might never come.
- There was also discussion of the decision to shoot in Texas: while it was always set in Texas creatively, based on a story Killen heard about living in Midland and what it would be like for someone like Robert to live there, if the financial incentives had not been in place in Texas it likely would have shot in Vancouver or some other city where such incentives existed.
- Marc Webb, who directed the pilot, did so as a result of an overall deal with the studio to direct a pilot: he made a wise choice in picking Lone Star, creatively speaking, and the pilot was definitely better for it.
- Speaking directly to the Masked Scheduler’s argument that selling the show based on critical praise damned it with normal viewers, Killen revealed that he had absolutely no concerns regarding that strategy.
- When the question of music was raised, Killen revealed himself as a first time television creator when he discussed those first moments realizing the level of power he had: he just took out his iPod, flipped to a song, and then it was done. He also revealed that the use of Mumford & Sons was actually even more prominent in the original cut (with four songs instead of three), but the band became concerned that it was reaching the point where they were endorsing the show.
- To go into the gender argument a bit more, the discussion I had on Twitter after the pilot was that I think the pilot clearly has gender issues, but nothing in the series’ premise would suggest that these characters would remain as marginal. I thought episode two did a good job of starting that expansion, and so I think Killen was right to argue that linearity of cut down pilot (boiled down to the protagonist) was not indicative of the direction the show wanted to go in.