Call it Tuesday morning quarterbacking. The season’s best reviewed new series, ‘Lone Star,‘ the saga of a con man juggling two very different lives, disappointed Monday night, despite airing after Fox’s most popular drama ‘House.’ Only 4.1 million viewers tuned in, for a paltry 1.3/3 among Adults 18-49. For comparison, the ‘House’ premiere was watched by 10.4 million people, and earned a 4.2/11 rating among Adults 18-49. That means two thirds of the people who tuned in to ‘House’ did not stick around for ‘Lone Star.’ Despite rumors that the show was facing cancellation, New York magazine reports that Fox will give it at least one more week to build an audience.
Now everyone in the television industry is trying to figure out what went wrong, and whether the show can be saved. There are several theories.
1. The Marketing Failed To Explain The Premise
The concept of ‘Lone Star’ is more difficult to explain then a brilliant doctor who can diagnose mysterious ailments. It’s a rarity for network television: a character study. Fox opted for billboards that featured two identically posed side by side photos of the main character in bed with the two women in his life. It did nothing to explain that the show was about a con man who was trying to go straight. There was little to draw viewers into the show.
2. The Title Also Failed To Explain The Premise
Titles are important. ‘The Event‘ is about a life-altering event. ‘Glee‘ is about a glee club. All ‘Lone Star’ reveals is that the show is set in Texas. Nobody watches a show because of the state where it takes place. The series was originally titled ‘Midland’, after one of the towns where the protagonist lives. That’s even more obscure. If the show were called something that evoked living a double life, a man juggling two women, or being a con artist, that might have made the show’s concept clearer to potential viewers and inspired them to tune in.
3. The Star Is An Unknown
James Wolk plays con man Bob Jones. Though his performance has received positive reviews, he is hardly a household name. His only prior starring role was in the Hallmark Hall of Fame MOW ‘Front of the Class.’ While casting a familiar face will not make the show a success over the long haul, it’s a good way to get people to tune in to the first episode of a series. ‘The Event,’ which aired at the same time, featured an ensemble of well known actors including Jason Ritter and Blair Underwood. Though the cast of ‘Lone Star’ includes Jon Voight and ‘Friday Night Lights‘ Adrianne Palicki, all of the marketing focused exclusively on Wolk.
4. Shows Featuring Morally Ambiguous Protagonists Have Limited Audiences
There are numerous hit cable shows featuring amoral or downright evil protagonists including ‘Breaking Bad‘ and ‘Dexter.’ They are cable hits — which is miles away from what makes a show a success by network standards. AMC was thrilled that 3.1 million viewers tuned in for the third season premiere of ‘Breaking Bad,’ fewer people than watched ‘Lone Star.’ Perhaps amoral protagonists only appeal to niche audiences but the majority of viewers want to watch shows about heroic people. In addition, there is little motivation given in the pilot for Bob’s criminal behavior. While ‘Breaking Bad’s Walter is initially dealing drugs because he has terminal cancer and needs money to support his family, all Bob has is pressure from his con artist father. He’s an adult. He could say no. It is not until the very end of the pilot when he takes steps to save the people he has been conning that it becomes clear he is trying to go straight. Based on the way the ratings declined throughout the episode, a lot of viewers tuned out before that.
5. A Show About Financial Fraud Hits People The Wrong Way
Dexter only kills other killers. Walter only manufactures drugs for drug dealers and users. It’s a twisted sort of morality, but they are only hurting people who on some level deserve it. Bob and his father are swindling good people out of hard earned money. It’s all too similar to all the people in America who have lost their money due to con artists like Bernie Madoff or the stock market crash. There’s no karmic justice being doled out. Bob is also a bigamist, which viewers tend to find unsympathetic. On the Television Without Pity boards commenter Mia Nina wrote, “I liked it until he married the ‘girlfriend.’ I won’t root for a guy who can so easily justify something like that. Selkie wrote, “I don’t require my leads to be likeable… But if they aren’t going to be likeable, then they at least need to be sympathetic, and I’m not getting sympathetic from ‘Lone Star’ at this point.”
‘Lone Star’ should get a second chance, not only from Fox, but from the audience. It is an interesting, thought provoking show that has the potential to develop into something currently missing from the television landscape: a serious primetime soap for adults. Here’s why you should tune in next week:
1. It Is A Redemption Story
Imagine Sawyer from ‘Lost’ before he got to the island. That’s who Bob is. The show is about his journey to become a decent human being. We have to see him conning people to appreciate his character growth. He is a deeply flawed character with a faulty moral compass. That’s what makes him interesting. If you’re captivated by Don Draper, you should give him a chance.
2. Most Shows Get Better After The Pilot
Pilots are designed to persuade a network to buy a show. They’re laden with exposition and set up. Episode two is where the fun begins. Now that we know Bob is attempting to play Robin Hood, get out from under his father’s thumb, keep two women happy, and hide his cons from his wealthy Houston in-laws we get to watch the actual story unfold. Think how much better ‘Vampire Diaries’ is now than its mediocre pilot would have indicated.
3. The Supporting Cast Is Awesome
The pilot focused so much on Bob that there was little time to see Palicki, Voight and David Keith strut their stuff. Voight is playing a 21st century J.R. Ewing. Palicki’s Kat is no bimbo Southern Belle. Don’t you want to see what they’re going to do next?
4. Network Television Needs Fresh Ideas
Network primetime drama is virtually nothing but procedurals. That’s getting boring. Viewers who want to watch anything else have to turn to cable. If ‘Lone Star’ fails, the networks, who are currently considering which pilots to buy for the next season, will take it as a signal to avoid taking risks. If you don’t tune in, the next television season may bring nothing but more ‘CSI’ spin-offs.
5. The Social Networking Question
Why hasn’t Bob been exposed on Facebook when the two women in his life both tagged him in photos? Why isn’t one texting him when he’s with the other? How has the Thatcher family not Googled him and figured out something was off? Bob faces challenges Don Draper never did thanks to technology. It will be fascinating to see how — or if — the writers handle these issues.