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What Lone Star's Alamo Means for TV

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And the 2010-11 broadcast season claims its first victim: Lone Star, which had the (coincidental? not so much?) distinction of also being the best-reviewed new broadcast show of the fall.

I liked Lone Star’s pilot a lot, and thought the second episode was promising. I also think, though, that its critical reputation has been a little inflated from sympathy. I would not have put it up against the best new cable shows of the year, or even against the strongest network dramas of the past few years (Kings, Dollhouse, Fringe)—certainly, to take a Texas example, it was no Friday Night Lights.

But Lone Star’s fall will get a lot of attention, for a few reasons. (1) It was the best among a very weak fall season of new broadcast shows (even when 90% of the country has cable or satellite, for some reason we still must anoint a “best broadcast show”) (2) the disparity between the reviews and the ratings was glaring; and (3) it was significant less for what it was than what it represented.

The story of a bigamist con man in Texas trying to go straight while keeping the love of two women, Lone Star was a rare example of a broadcast network show trying to tell a nuanced serial story that wasn’t about a sci-fi conspiracy: in other words, the kind of show cable is doing much more of, and doing better. The networks had already pretty much ceded ambition to cable this season; if Lone Star bombed, the thinking was, it was going to be cautious cop and lawyer dramas, with the occasional light spy or superhero caper, from here on out.

Now I’m the first person to want the big networks to be more ambitious. I mean, they still make a lot of shows, and I’d rather that they weren’t boring. But I’m not sure Lone Star was really the show to make a critical cause celebre—it had a lot of potential, but also some plausibility issues, and it seemed like it might have been better executed had it been made for a network like FX or AMC.

And while I think nothing is going to change the fact that cable makes most of TV’s best shows, I’m not ready to predict the networks are going to give up on unusual shows. There’s just a certain kind of unusual that works there. Glee, for instance, was the top show last week in the 18 to 49 demographic, and it’s one of the most risk-taking, stylistically strange, transgressive shows a big network has tried in a long time. The networks also tend to do much better now with comedy (Parks and Recreation, Community, Modern Family) than drama.

You can make the argument that only network shows have broad mainstream cultural reach, and that that in itself matters: you can’t create a phenomenon like The Cosby Show on basic cable. But even the most popular big network shows have a fraction of their old audience now. And TV shows have many more, ancillary ways of entering the consciousness today. A show like Jersey Shore or Mad Men is arguably much more widely discussed, though not more widely watched, than NCIS. And because shows can make it on cable with smaller audiences, something like Breaking Bad, which would not have survived a pitch meeting in 1985, can go into its fourth season.

And yes, there are still people without cable—though, as I note above, a statistically smaller number, and those without can access shows on Hulu, on DVD or through iTunes or Netflix. (Also, though I doubt I’ll ever see this statistic, I have to wonder how many Lone Star fans in particular did not have cable.)

As long as broadcast networks are in the TV business, I’d like them to be making good TV. But the fact is, there’s more really great TV on now than in the ’80s or ’90s. (Even though then, you could argue, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were making better shows than they are now—though it’s debatable, if you compare year against year, rather than 2010 vs. the cumulative best of both decades.) Whether that great TV is on a broadcast or cable network is, for most people, a fairly insider topic now.

So I feel badly for Lone Star as a show. But I’m not mourning for TV—it was just one star in a much wider constellation.