September 20th, 2010
“If you want to make something last, you need to make it with your own two hands.”
David Bordwell, a prominent film scholar, wrote earlier this month about his personal experience with television as medium, in particular why he doesn’t write about it despite the so-called golden age of serialized television. While his piece briefly speaks to his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) lack of interest in modern texts, it focuses primarily on his childhood experience with television, which leads him to this depiction of television viewership:
“Having been lured by intriguing people more or less like us, you keep watching. Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon.”
I raise this point because it creates the image of television as an investment, which leads me to FOX’s Lone Star. A show about a con artist who convinces others to invest in a lie, the series itself raises an important question in relation to Bordwell’s notion of devotion: is Lone Star a con?
It’s the question that everyone has sort of been struggling with: the pilot is a polished, intelligent episode of television, featuring a strong lead performance by James Wolk and a strong supporting cast, but there remains this sense that it is all smoke and mirrors. It isn’t necessarily that we think the writers and producers are incapable of making a great series, but rather the concern is that the premise just isn’t expansive enough to sustain itself over multiple seasons (or an entire network season, for that matter), leaving room for future heartbreak when it (as Bordwell predicts) fails to live up to our lofty expectations.
But, as someone who enjoys the ups and downs of television and wouldn’t have it any other way, I don’t think that this uncertainty should keep us from enjoying it. Lone Star is not, in fact, a con: the pilot doesn’t hide anything beneath the surface, resisting the sense of mystery and uncertainty that plagues other series of this nature. While the premise may not have the longevity of your basic crime procedural, this is a well-made premise pilot that rarely blinks in presenting a clear scenario to its audience.
Yes, it could all come tumbling down in a few episodes – based on this pilot, however, I (unlike Bordwell) will take that risk.
The most compelling part of Lone Star is also its most volatile. Robert’s double life is well-drawn, in that there are clear reasons he struggles as he does: he’s a con man because his father taught him to be one, and he falls in love with the people he cons because of the lack of love he received as a child. He’s so good at being a con man because he truly wants to belong in every community he infiltrates: while he still cons them at the end of the day, he ends up feeling really guilty about it (as most ostensible protagonists are wont to do). If this was simply because has has a heart of gold, I think that the pilot would have lost me. However, I thought that Wolk did a good job of emphasizing in his performance that his connection to these women is not really love so much as his desire to be loved. It isn’t romantic when he tells his father that he loves both his fake wife and his fake girlfriend (now second fake wife), it’s actually a bit sad.
It’s also arrogant, but in the most interesting of ways: he is trying to prove that he is better than his father ever was, able to “have it all” by living two separate lives. It’s unhealthy in every possible way, but it also perfectly captures his position in relation to his father and to his two wives. While he claims that he has conned enough people that he actually knows a good deal from a bad one, and could legitimately do the job which Cat’s father has hired him to do, in the end he chooses to keep conning. What he realizes is that there is no real safe option: no matter which side he chooses, he will be breaking someone’s heart and still end up living with his lies – if not necessarily living a complete lie – at any particular time. And so he chooses to avoid going halfway, proving to his father that he has what it takes to navigate this tricky situation at full speed.
You could claim that Robert is the traditional anti-hero, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but there’s one problem: while it is narratively interesting (for me, at least) to have a character trapped in two lies and only falling deeper into their grasp, where’s the out for the series to continue beyond a single season? There are numerous cable dramas (Breaking Bad and Dexter immediately come to mind) where characters find themselves trapped in difficult situations like this one, but their worlds feel designed to allow them to escape at the last possible moment (although often with extreme consequences, as we saw at the end of Dexter’s fourth season). By comparison, Lone Star’s exit strategy from a narrative perspective is just as absent as Robert’s, which becomes a problem when we start to imagine where the series goes from here – it’s one thing for one set of lies to come undone, but here we have two situations that could implode at any moment, meaning that there is no status quo for the series to potentially return to.
While I am convinced that the show could handle a single season with its central conflict, getting to the point where things start to fall apart, where does it go from there? Does it kill one of the two scenarios and have Robert struggle to stay monogamous with a single life (and wife)? Does it introduce a new scenario to replace one of the lives? Does it have him run away entirely, entering a different state and taking on an entirely new identity? And in that new identity, does the show only work if he’s living a double life? Or could he become a sort of procedural con artist season-by-season? And is it really possible that James Wolk will be enough of a star that the network is willing to leave Jon Voigt and Adrianne Palicki behind? And if the show brings one of them along, how does the show adapt?
I don’t want to harp on these questions too much, since I’m sure the producing team have been dealing with these questions since the show was picked up – they will cross that bridge when they come to it, and we’ll simply have to see what happens. I also don’t want to focus too much on the future because the present is quite interesting: taken as two separate scenarios, Robert’s two cons each have interesting dynamics of community and family which allow the series to present a diverse portrait. While the Midland story is slightly less dynamic at this stage, I really liked the backyard barbecue and its contrast with the stuffy cocktail party, and am intrigued to see how the show balances the two stories (as this is another area where it will sort of mirror Robert’s struggles).
And yet, even as I start that discussion, I return to the future: I’m intrigued to know how episodes will be structured, and how fast the plot will unfold, and whether the show will get pushed towards a mid-season finale cliffhanger faster than it should be. Television asks us to go along for the ride, and with Lone Star that ride seems fraught with potential pitfalls at every turn. And yet, let’s turn again to Robert’s example: while he is incredibly intelligent, sometimes he tries to turn stupid into smart, and at least in the pilot he succeeds: he manages to turn a cast aside idea from his new job into a solution for his Midland problem, buying him another few months to “have it all.” While I am not quite ready to place faith in a character as conflicted as Robert, I am willing to say that I’m going to give the producers the benefit of the doubt: turning this premise into a network drama series honestly looks a bit stupid when taken from certain angles, but based on the pilot they may be able to turn stupid into smart.
And as a fan of complex network dramas, a rare breed these days, I would be most pleased to see them succeed.
- Good use of musical montage here, both in terms of music (which was solid throughout) and images: they did some great work introducing the duality of the character before the central duality was introduced in the early montage visiting all of the different potential investors.
- Anyone get some There Will Be Blood flashbacks during Jon Voigt’s discussion of digging his own well? Anyone?
- Family drama on the Oil Tycoon side of things is interesting, especially Drew (the family castoff who is considered a failure); the scene at the (poorly staged) football game spoke to the idea that he’s the family’s black sheep, so no surprise that “Bob” would use that to his advantage.
- A bit too much writerly con man references (“Never play yourself!”; “You’re living in a house of cards!”) in the episode, but I’ll forgive them since they actually do provide some compelling context for the situation, and this is a pilot after all.
- Nice direction from Marc Webb (late of (500) Days of Summer, pre-Spider-Man): nothing too fancy, but it’s an extremely stylish pilot.
- I’m going to be seeing the third episode late next week while I’m in Austin for the Flow TV Conference, and Kyle Killen (creator/writer) will be on hand for a Q & A session, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the above questions above leading into that screening. I’ll have a report from the screening here sometime before that episode airs the following Monday, likely.