The second episode of Lone Star has always been more important to the show's future than the pilot, great though the pilot was. But over the course of the last week, the episode became perhaps the most important episode the show will ever air, a make-it-or-break-it chance for the show to improve its ratings significantly or die trying. It's always been the episode where all involved needed to prove that what they were making was a TV series and not just an experiment in smuggling cable series tropes onto broadcast TV. It's also always been the episode where the show needed to suggest it had an idea of who some of its less developed characters in the pilot were. But over the past week (thanks to the pilot's atrocious ratings), it's become the episode that has to lure in so many curious passers-by, TV blog readers, and Twitterphiles that it saves not only itself but the idea of sophisticated programming on network TV itself. On the first count, the show came up inconclusive. On the second count, the show came through. On the third count ... we'll see in the morning. And on all three, it suggested the best way forward was to make Bob Allen a total, total asshole.
The pilot of Lone Star showed us the world through Bob Allen's eyes. The second episode makes a key shift: It shows us Bob Allen through the eyes of everyone around him. His father goes from the potential stereotype conman who's never been caught of the pilot to a man who's aging too rapidly to be in a young man's game and now finds himself trapped in a desk job he doesn't want with a son who's starting to break free of his grasp. Lindsay goes from the easily misled, pretty young girlfriend of the pilot to a woman who's starting to wonder, wait, who the hell did I marry? Cat goes from a woman who's wildly in love with her husband in the pilot to a single mother (yes, we'll get to this) who may have been just a touch desperate to get someone like Bob in her life in the second episode. These are all good shifts for many reasons, but they're also good shifts because they point out that beneath his sunny, James Wolk-ian exterior, Bob is a gigantic jerk.
The biggest difference between the pilot and most cable series was that Bob was someone we were ostensibly supposed to root for. We knew that what he was doing was wrong, but we were supposed to find it thrilling enough to cheer him on the whole way. The best cable series have always shown the gap between what their antiheroes do and the way they perceive themselves. We might wish we could live like Tony Soprano, but we're able to see that what he's doing is very bad indeed. Lone Star doesn't have as much of a disconnect in this regard, probably because Wolk could make stepping on a puppy's head seem vaguely charming. So it's very important that one of the earliest episodes shows us just how much of a nightmare it would be to live with this guy in your life, which this one ably does.
The major thrust of the episode involves Bob's two families and two women growing respectively more suspicious of him and more enamored of him. His plan to win over Cat's family by leaving the Thatcher company and striking out on his own with the wind farm, yet attracting one of the Thatcher sons to work with him, works exactly as he planned. Soon, he's even more deeply embedded into the company, and his dad's sitting at a corner desk to boot, even as dad plans to take out the company and cut his son out of the deal. This is the stuff of broad soaps, but it's so well executed. You understand at every turn just what the con entails and how the people in on the con are keeping those out of it in the dark. There's a show within Lone Star that's a procedural, a con-of-the-week type show, and if the series somehow miraculously makes it to a second season (or even the back half of season one), I'd like to see glimpses of it.
The one false note in this whole storyline is the fact that, well, Cat has a kid. Now, this isn't as bad as it would have been had this fact arisen in, say, episode 27. But having it come up in episode two still feels jarring. We couldn't even get a couple of dialogue mentions of this Grace kid in episode one? Still, having a kid there ups the stakes. Now, it's not just Bob fleecing two grown women who should really know better. He's performing his on-the-fly self-improvement seminar in front of a kid, too, and that once again creates the sense that Bob is a bigger dick than the pilot made him out to be. This episode is marvelous at giving us a vision of what it's like to be on the inside of this con for all of the people from whom Bob is trying to hide his indiscretions. (At the same time, putting a kid in danger feels a little cheap, the flip side of proving a guy's a hero because he saves a child.)
The flip side of the Thatcher storyline takes place back in Midland, where Lindsay is slowly starting to question just what her new husband's past is really like, since he's offered to throw her a real wedding but also hasn't asked her to invite anyone he knows. There's a great scene where she flips through his box of personal stuff and can't find him in a yearbook (he's there, just in the very background of one shot). And there's another great scene where he realizes his cell phone is missing, and it turns out to be in the hands of Lindsay's sister, Gretchen, who, of course, dials his dad and starts to wonder if Bob isn't lying about having a father who died. Again, the sense of nauseating tension here is acute. We don't want Bob to get caught both because we still kind of like Bob and because we know how much it will destroy poor, innocent Lindsay. But there's essentially no way he doesn't get caught. Maybe the Band-Aid needs to come off quickly.
And now, of course, the question is whether the show survives. If it maintains last week's number or drops, Fox is well within its rights to cancel the show (hell, it's well within its rights to cancel the show if it only gains a couple hundred thousand viewers). And it seems incredibly likely that it will drop those viewers. The idea of it gaining, of it growing enough to get episode three on the air next week, is such an insane one that it seems like it would require a miracle. But I hope if that happens, Fox at least lets the show run out the string of 13 that the network has ordered, so we at least get a nice box set out of the deal. And, let's think big here, Fox has enough huge hits that it can afford to keep a show like this - a gorgeously shot, well-acted, well-written show - on the air, even if it wants to bury the show on Fridays. It doesn't make a lot of business sense, but there's a long tradition of number one networks hanging on to prestige projects and putting them in out of the way timeslots to improve their critical reputations - see also: Homicide, St. Elsewhere, thirtysomething, Cagney & Lacey (though that one grew into a hit), and China Beach. This is less common in today's network landscape, but a part of me hopes Fox does the foolhardy thing and tosses the show in a timeslot where it will do as little damage as possible but at least air.
Last week, I wasn't convinced Lone Star was a TV show long-term. I'm still not. But I'm convinced there's at least a season of good storylines here, now, and I very much want to see how they play out. Episode two wasn't as good as the pilot, but it was good enough to make me sad that this seems to be a dead show walking.
- It looks like one of the ways the show slashed its budget between pilot and episode two was dropping the pop music. Instead, it's hired someone to write a score that SOUNDS like pop music without lyrics, and it works surprisingly well (indeed, almost better than the pop music). The only straight-up musical montage comes at the very end with a song by The National.
- There were some beautiful shots in that segment of the show where the characters went to the wind farm, making nice use of storm clouds on the horizon.
- The opening scene - Bob is accosted by a man whom he bilked out of $25,000 at an airport - is a very nice reintroduction to the character without having to devote a whole episode to who he is. Efficient storytelling, that.