By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; C01
With all the bloat on the prime-time schedule -- the singing and dancing competitions, the limitless crime-scene forensics, the snarked-out absurdist comedies without laugh tracks -- there's exactly one hour left for a fall TV show that tells its tale in a deliberate, well-written and subtly acted way. That one hour belongs to Fox's "Lone Star."
I worry a bit about this promising Monday night drama that follows a handsome young Texas swindler as he tries to sustain his elaborate con. It's better than almost anything new this season-- which isn't saying much; this season goes wanting for standouts. Yet I fret because "Lone Star" seems to be made by sane people who believe in the art of good television. In a parallel world, "Lone Star" could fit on HBO or Showtime, but here it is, duking it out with "The Event" and "Hawaii Five-0." Sigh -- it looks doomed.
Or, like television dramas of 1990s yore ("Party of Five" comes to mind, since "Lone Star" shares some its producer pedigree), the series will have to turn up the heat on its more soapy storylines and aspects, which will rub away some of its more gentle touches.
When that day comes, "Lone Star" may well begin to resemble that ratings juggernaut from another era, "Dallas," to which everyone compared it during the pre-season buzz. Right now "Lone Star" is its own lovely mini-movie.
James Wolk is Robert (a.k.a. Bob), a young man raised by a professional grifter (David Keith). Now in his 20s, Robert/Bob is working two major scams with Dad -- selling fake oil well shares in the West Texas town of Midland, and also worming his way into one of the state's mighty family-owned oil companies 500 miles away in Houston.
In Midland, Robert (or is it Bob?) has fallen in love with sweet Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). He's moved into her pretty yellow bungalow and is about to propose marriage. He's also sold her family and their friends what they think are shares in a profitable oil lease. It's a scam.
In Houston, Bob (or is it Robert?) is married to Cat (Adrianne Palicki), the only daughter of oil baron Clint Thatcher, played by a glowering Jon Voight. Till now, Bob/Rob has been fronting as a traveling salesman of oil leases; Cat married him because of his independence. But Clint senses an opportunity to promote his son-in-law.
Over a family brunch, Clint announces that he wants Rob/Bob to assume an executive role, to the chagrin of his sons (Mark Delkin as resentful Tram; Bryce Johnson as dopey Drew). "Bob's been gettin' it done and we haven't," Clint grumbles. "Seems like a no-brainer to me."
Later, at a cocktail party among Houston swells ("She's 80 percent silicone and 20 percent Merlot," Cat observes, giving Rob/Bob the rundown of the guest list), Clint menacingly reminds Rob/Bob that he can spot an empty hat a mile away: "I've seen more than one, but none that ever get away with it. Not even my brother, Roy, may the sum'bitch rest in peace."
So it's an oil story? Actually it's a love story wrapped around one of those shaggy sagas of a liar on whose precarious behalf we sweat nervously. Rob/Bob is hopelessly, dangerously devoted to both women and to both of his lives -- switching wallets and cellphones in airport parking lots, bedding his wife in a McMansion here and then flying "home" to his simpler life over there, where nothing makes him happier than to mow the front yard. (One can only imagine what sort of miles Rob/Bob is racking up on Southwest.)
It's good to see Keith again as Rob/Bob's nagging and malevolent father, who urges him to get out of Midland, now that the phony oil lease scam is about to break open. "What have I taught you?" Dad asks. "You play any character you want, but you never play yourself."
But Rob/Bob, who is sick of living his life on the run, has another idea: going legit in his executive oil job and making the Midland deal right, at least on a balance sheet. He even offers his father gainful employment.
Dad scoffs. "This is about movin' to an island full of topless women," he says. "Not about dragging my ass to a cubicle every day."
Thus, in a convenience store parking lot in the middle of the night, we witness a crack in Rob/Bob's cool collectedness. He pounds the steering wheel of his car and fights back tears.
None of it would seem believable without Wolk's earnest work as Rob/Bob. With so many of this season's shows built around actors we're all too familiar with, it's a rare thing to see a young actor take on the burden of carrying a series that depends mostly on his nuance. When in doubt, Wolk sometimes affects a George Clooney-esque bobblehead, but he is as charming as Clooney, too, which is crucial to his cons, commercial and romantic.
Watching "Lone Star" it's difficult to pinpoint my anxiety: Am I worried that Rob/Bob will be found out, or am I worried that the show will quickly run out of ways to stave off the plausibility problem? In the age of search engines, who on Google Earth could possibly sustain a double life that involves banks, checks, land leases and airplane tickets?
We shall see. What I like most about "Lone Star" is its script, written by the show's executive producer, Kyle Killen, and its "Up in the Air"-like regard (speaking of Clooney) for the carry-on, frequent-flier routines of the lonesome, modern-day hombre.
The interstitial stuff in Monday's episode -- the artfully shot baggage carousels; the forlorn soundtrack choices supplied by indie rock bands such as Cold War Kids or Mumford & Sons -- will unfortunately be the first things jettisoned if and when "Lone Star's" ratings flag. I hope sneaky Rob/Bob has a plan to avoid that.
Lone Star (one hour) debuts Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox.