'Lone Star': Never Play Yourself

Lesley Smith

Lone Star suggests that being human has nothing to do with conscience and empathy and everything to do with how well you deliver the performance your audience expects.

Lone Star

Airtime: Mondays, 9pm ET
Cast: James Wolk, Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford, David Keith, Mark Decklin, Bryce Johnson, Jon Voight
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Fox
Director: Marc Webb
Air date: 2010-09-20

Some people craft online avatars to have their Second Lives. Bob Allen (James Wolk) just drives 423 miles down Texas highways to Midland to enjoy his. In Houston, he's married to oil Princess, Cat (Adrianne Paliscki), and in Midland, he's Robert, tender boyfriend to small-town Lindsay (Eloise Mumford), and the future son-in-law of her parent's dreams. In fact, he's playing the long con in both, fleecing the blue-collar bank accounts and hard-won retirements of Midland to finance his leap from a good marriage to an inside job with the Thatchers that will let him suck their empire dry.

As Allen slides from one persona to the other, the premiere episode of Lone Star suggests that being human has nothing to do with conscience and empathy and everything to do with how well you deliver the performance your audience expects. What lies behind his affable smile? Is he a singular criminal or an emblematic everyman? As it poses existential questions, the show benefits from the casting choice of newcomer Wolk and a supple, low-key naturalism in both performances and direction.

Laconic dialogue and fast-moving scenes soon establish tension not in the counterpoint between Allen's two lives but in the counterpoint between his desires and those of his father, longtime grifter John (David Keith). An aging Mephistopheles, John haunts the empty storefronts and rural diners between Houston and Midland. In clandestine meetings and eerie, late-night calls, he constantly reminds his son that only the con is real. One short flashback to Robert/Bob's youth shows exactly why he responds to his father's exhortations. Robbed of any control over his own life, in self-defense, he's become a master reactor, agile, imaginative, and intrepid, never stopping with one lie when he can come up with two or three.

This tendency shapes his every encounter. When his suspicious brother-in-law, Tremmell (Mark Decklin), discovers no one knows Bob at the fancy hotel where he claims he stays on his trips out of town, Bob "confesses" that he stays at a cheap motel to save money, but has lied to save embarrassing the Thatcher family. As Tremmell sulks, father-in-law Clint (Jon Voight) beams at Bob's hard work and self-deprivation.

With an equally ingenious lie in his Robert guise, Allen soothes a crusty Midland investor, asking to see the oil field his money is supporting. Pretending to be a location scout for a film company, Allen bribes an oil field foreman to let him bring "the director" (the investor) to see the location. John walks on in a hard hat and a carapace of blue-collar sincerity to seal the deal, and the two con men drive off with a satisfied investor and a bigger profit than they had hoped.

Showing day-to-day mechanics of the con, Lone Star illuminates how Robert/Bob lives his life, a mosaic of glinting fragments as well as resulting tensions below that surface. Wolk's performance mixes poignancy and hubris in equal measure. As Allen romps with his wife, romances his girlfriend, and drinks beer 'round the barbeque with his Midland buddies, Wolk conjures a man apparently so avaricious that he simply cannot give up any any part of his life. But in the close-ups when all expression flees his face, Wolk hints too at a man on the verge of extinction, who has discovered there is not enough validation in any one life for the depth of his need.

If Allen is on an edge, John is also vulnerable, well past his prime, running his scams by proxy, and always aware of the disaster awaiting him if his son breaks free. He's a frightened bully and emotional blackmailer, warning his son, "I am the one who loves you for who you are." But John also radiates the steely organizational genius required to create the perfect con for his son's unique talents.

Their relationship finds an aptly complex backdrop in Texas. In Houston, wider shots show off the Thatchers' enviable opulence, while more warmly lit, tighter shots capture the down-home friendliness of Robert's life in Midland. Whenever John and his son meet, the color palette fades while an understated play of light and shadow across both men's faces hints at their duplicity, not only as con men but also towards each other. A close-up of John's thousand-yard stare as his son walks out on him one more time suggests the ghost of Angelica Huston in The Grifters looks over his shoulder.

But apart from this central duo, the show offers less detail: Clint's menace, for instance, is hinted at, but not subtly, as he's framed consistently from below. His relationship with Robert is bound to crack open, as it's plain each is an accomplished liar. Allen's easy smile is the most chilling sight on the screen. He can be whatever his audience needs him to be, whether that audience is his father, his wife, or us.

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