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TV Tonight: Lone Star

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Bob Allen (James Wolk), as he tells us in the pilot of Lone Star (Fox, debuts 9 p.m. E.T. tonight), is in the “relationship business.” Boy, is he ever. He has a beautiful girlfriend (Eloise Mumford) in Midland, Texas, where he sells land shares in an energy-development deal. And he has a beautiful wife (Adrienne Palicki) in Houston, where he’s moving up fast in her father’s oil company.

Bob is a con man: the land deal is a scam, the oil job part of a scheme with his dad (David Keith) to rip off his father-in-law (Jon Voight).

But his big problem is not that his businesses are fake; it’s that his relationships are real. Bob, a con prodigy who’s been pulling scams with his dad since childhood, was not supposed to fall in love with either woman, but he’s in love with both. To his father’s chagrin, he makes a decision: he’s going to stay with both women, undo the land scam and try to make an honest go at the (potentially lucrative) oil job.

Money, power, love and lies: there are definitely elements of oil-biz soap in Lone Star. But what makes it distinctive is that the creators chose to play its emotions straight—the melodrama of Bob’s choices and his decision are not larger than life, but just life-sized. This makes Lone Star’s challenge greater, and its potential payoff bigger. Rather than titillate you with how dangerous Bob’s life and position are, the show focuses on how sad, and oddly romantic, his torn-between-two-lovers situation is.

And in the pilot, at least, it doers a very good job. Major credit goes to relative newcomer Wolk, who convincingly sells Bob as a decent, confused, pressured guy who never had a real childhood–or a real life of any sort. No matter the situation–an awkward social showdown, a near-fight, a delicate scam–he has an unnatural sense of poise and equanimity. Gradually you come to see that this is why he’s so good at his job, and this is what his job has made of him.

The central premise of Lone Star is almost like AI or Pinocchio; Bob wants to become a real boy after having spent almost his entire life faking it. That this may be a problem for him–despite his guilt and good intentions–is evident in the decision he makes, to keep both relationships. A decent guy, after all, might decide that the stand-up thing to do is choose one woman or the other.

But Bob, for all his savvy at con artistry, is too naive, or damaged, to see that that’s a problem. He’s truly in love, and he is fantastic at making other people love and like him. Not just women (we see him show his idea of fidelity by turning down a third woman’s pass on a business trip), but his business associates, his neighbors and his father-in-law, a self-made man who sees Bob as more like him than his own children. So while on the one hand he wants to give up the con game–though his father may make that difficult–succeeding will require an even greater con.

Lone Star’s plot, unsurprisingly for a story about such an elaborate scam, has plausibility problems: how, for instance, does Bob account for going entirely out of contact with his wife and girlfriend when he’s with the other? (To its credit, the pilot confronts the issue in part, having Bob talk himself out of a slip-up in his trail-covering.)

That implausibility I can live with. But more important, Lone Star will have to convince us of Bob’s plausibility as a character. We’re meant to see that Bob has decided that what he’s doing as a con man is wrong, and that he’s a basically god guy who wants to get out of it. But we’re also meant to see that he’s extremely good at it and has done it for 20 years–if not enjoying the work, at least taking some pride in it. It’s hard to see the latter when the drama–presumably, so that we can find Bob likeable–immediately shows us the former. And if he’s such a good guy, why the sudden change of heart?

One explanation is that his actions are contrived to fit the story. The more charitable explanation is that Bob is a complex, still-enigmatic puzzle, and part of the show’s mystery will be figuring him out. The pilot and Wolk’s performance in it are good enough that I’m willing to give it that benefit of a doubt. I’ve only seen the pilot so far; time will tell if my faith is correctly placed, or if I’ve been conned.