Eight days and two episodes after the curtain came up on Lone Star, Fox has pulled the plug on the show. On one hand, it's hard to view this behavior as anything out of the ordinary for Fox, a network that's notoriously trigger-happy and no stranger to cutting a show loose after two underperforming episodes. (Head Cases, anyone?) But on the other, it's a major disappointment for what was lost, and for what it means for the rest of network programming.
Lone Star, for the apparently millions who didn't tune in, is about a con man in Texas with two wives who's trying to go straight after a lifetime of crooked dealings. He's got a wife in Houston that's hooked up him up with a major oil job, a position he wants to use to make good on promises to his new wife in Midland, where he's left behind some investors who are bound to come looking for him. It is, in other words, a high-concept soap with no small amount of conflict and potential. And because of that, no one watched.
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Network airtime isn't like cable. Series on the big four need to ultimately conform to a rough idea of expectations or risk losing audience. (This is, I hasten to add, the business approach to things. I'll get to the art later.) Right now, that means that one-hour dramas need to generate predictable plots built around mostly memorable actors and do it so that no one episode stands out above the rest. The goal is not the story, but the experience of watching the same exact thing every week. David Caruso must always make a pun and put on his glasses; Charlie Sheen must always wear a bowling shirt and be a misogynist; Christopher Meloni must always roll his sleeves up and try not to bludgeon a rapist with a chair. A successful series isn't a series in the sense of being a string of stories. It's the same tableau, over and over, that brings people back, whether it's a crime lab or a bar or coffee shop or starship bridge or anything else. That's what makes hits.
But that's not what makes interesting television, and Lone Star creator Kyle Killen wanted to make interesting television. There's no stasis on his series: Bob (James Wolk), the con man at the middle of it all, is constantly hustling to keep his two lives and wild-card father in check. There's no emotional home base, and that makes for a complicated and potentially rewarding show, but one that's a much tougher sell to people who just want to see something comforting. As Dan Harmon recently noted while reflecting on the difficulty of bringing an audience to Community, watching something conventional is akin to coming home and getting to "just slip your foot into this warm slipper that's been molded to fit your foot after a hard day's work." He was talking about the challenges of finding success with a single-camera sitcom in a three-camera world, but he could just as easily have been describing the problems people like Killen face trying to bring tired, reluctant viewers to high-concept dramas. Shows like that have a greater chance of disappointing viewers: you go in expecting more, so you're more let down when it stumbles. But if all you want is to see a comely blonde collect semen from a crime scene, you won't have trouble being satisfied.
Killen's problem is also the fact that he tried to do all this on Fox in the first place. It's not just their willingness to can a show if it's not an instant dynamo, since the presence of American Idol is (for now) enough to keep them in competition. They're a broadcast network, when Killen's show clearly feels like a cable offering. His protagonist is a well-meaning but occasionally deluded man who concludes that the best way out of his two marriages is to stay in them; how does that not rank Bob with conflicted, morally questionable leading characters like Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Jimmy McNulty, and others? The 4.9 million viewers the pilot episode earned were written off as a poor turnout by Fox, but those numbers are gold to cable outlets. The latest season premiere of Mad Men pulled in 2.92 million, and that was its highest premiere yet. The metrics on cable are much more forgiving, especially if your series can pull in decent numbers but also traffic in the kind of cool or cred that lets nets feel better about themselves as artistic havens. Or he could try a split-cost deal between specialty and broadcast outlets, the way DirecTV was able to keep Friday Night Lights around a couple extra seasons. Everybody wins.
Then again, maybe I'm just fooling myself. Cable's no paradise. FX's Thief was an intriguing, high-concept show a few years back about a career burglar forced to raise the daughter of his girlfriend, but it didn't get the ratings the network wanted, so they canceled it and submitted it for awards consideration as a miniseries. Maybe I'm just tricking myself into thinking that the grass would have been greener elsewhere for Killen. But I have to believe that good television dramas can survive somewhere. It's too disheartening to think otherwise.