Was happy to be reminded last Tuesday at the Paley Center how much I enjoyed FOX's Lone Star pilot going into Saturday's Comic-Con premiere of NBC's The Event pilot, two new dramas that are undoubtedly going to be hyped to high heaven by their respective networks and two dramas that, on concept alone, really pull at my internal TV viewer's dichotomy. One the one hand... a challenging character soap. On the other hand, a twisty, plot-driven conspiracy drama with genre underpinings.
WHY OH WHY WERE THESE SHOWS BEING SCHEDULED AGAINST ONE ANOTHER!?
That is what I screamed initially.
And then I saw both pilots. Okay, I read both pilots, too, so I knew what each was about beyond its logline, but it really is the viewing experience that solidified things in my mind.
Lone Star has me as a captive viewer. The Event still has to tell me what the hell it is (and I've seen the entire pilot!) before I make any decisions, but my gut reactions is "I do not trust this show."
Maybe I'm feeling burned from the Lost finale (not that The Event was ever anywhere close to Lost) that, despite what I've blogged here, has not improved with age. I stand by my opinion that the issues with the finale are due to problems in the entire final season and not the finale itself, but... it's all mixed together and fermented at bit.
Maybe I'm feeling burned by Heroes, which was also a far better pilot than The Event, and after burning out its plot through the first season and then refusing to introduce new interesting characters or make the old characters more interesting suffered abysmally.
The thing is... The Event does not have any interesting characters. None. I'm not saying that every character must break from archetypes or bend the rules in some special, unexpected way. I'm saying that The Event is populated by stock characters who we do not really get to know beyond their occupation or their love lives.
Someone will argue against me here and say "What about Laura Innes' character?" To which I will say "What do you really know about her?" That she was a captive at the secret Alaskan prison facility? Fine. That's what she is. WHO IS SHE? If anyone has seen the first section of the intoxicatingly fun 70-minute Phantom Menace review, you know what I'm saying.
Lost started off with pretty generic archetypes, didn't it? A heroic doctor, a drug addict musician, redneck ruffian, the non-English speaking Koreans, a father and son and their dog, an Iraqi war veteran, a pampered princess, etc. But guess what? At the end of that pilot, even in those incredibly odd circumstances, you knew how those characters reacted to things. How they might act in any given circumstance. Who they were... even if you didn't really know everything about them. Jack was always going to put the burden of leadership and saving others on himself. Kate was always going to be coy and adventure-prone, Charlie was always going to be scrappy, underestimated, and charming. And y'know the lesson from Lost? The show lost itself when it stopped being predominantly about character and started being predominantly about mythology. Everyone will pinpoint a different moment in time when that happened, but it did.
You don't know crap about anyone in The Event. And I find that to be a real issue considering that even at the end of the pilot, you still have no idea what "the event" is. Yeah, some weird shit happens. There's bound to curiosity about it. And I have little doubt that, despite the piddling lead-in that Chuck will be, The Event will premiere to very good ratings. And that'll probably continue for a few weeks. But it's unsustainable without character.
That's not the only problem I have with the series, but it's the major one. Beyond that, just looking at the pilot, we're given 4 point of view characters... all of whom are male. That's a problem. There's an overused flashback device that, one hopes, is in the pilot only and not in the rest of the series because, with 80% of the pilot a flashback to one time or another, the tension of the present is constantly cut when it needs to be sustained. Speaking of those flashbacks... they aren't cohesive enough. We get "11 days ago," "8 days ago," "7 days ago," "13 months ago." Sometimes not even bothering to check back in with the present as we slide to different points in time with nothing by a chyron to tell us when or where we are. It's disorienting and it's flawed because it means there isn't enough in the present to keep us interested.
Which is shocking because, on a pure plot level, the "present" is about a guy trying to hijack an airplane in Miami... because his soon-to-be-father-in-law is the pilot and is being coerced into crashing the plane into the President of the United States' Miami retreat, presumably to kill the President. And it all goes back to character. It may be cool in the moment, and it's certainly filmed and edited and scored well enough to put you on the edge of your seat (despite mostly the flacid flashbacks)... but it's flat. It's meaningless. It's manipulative in the worst sort of way because it doesn't give you anything but twists and turns that lead nowhere (at least in the pilot). I saw it described on Twitter as "all sizzle and no steak" and I think that's a completely apt analogy. But I suspect a lot of people, for a while, will be perfectly fine with sizzle. It should get a male-skewing audience, as these things are wont to do. I, myself, am committed to watch episode two to see if the show will be so bold as to, y'know, tell me what the hell the series is.
Lone Star is the complete opposite of The Event. In almost every conceivable way. First of all, it has a far bigger lead-in than The Event in House (though I suspect for the first week or two, the more superficially exciting and flashy show, The Event, will out-rate Lone Star). Lone Star's audience will likely be female-skewing. It's a soap opera, make no mistake. It's also rather slowly paced, though it certainly builds as the pilot goes on, trying to hook you far more on its emotion and its character than on its plotting.
And, on a character front, where The Event is all sizzle... Lone Star is steak. It is all about character or, more accurately, one character: Robert/Bob Allen, played by James Wolk.
Bob is an intriguing character, existing as the network version of someone who is not quite Don Draper (Mad Men), Walter White (Breaking Bad), or Bill Henrickson (Big Love) but has elements of all. He's a con man. He's married. And he has another life elsewhere in Texas where he has a girlfriend. And he claims to love both women and wants to go straight and have a real life (or, as it were, lives).
That's all you really need to know about him, isn't it? Knowing that he wants to go straight tells you what his actions will be, even if they are within the context of a con artist who is cheating on his wife (who started as one of his marks).
And the real kicker is that, by the end of the pilot, somehow, you fall in love with Bob as a viewer. It's very hard not to and the pilot is designed, music and all, to make sure that you so. You may think "there's no way I would!" I challenge you to watch the pilot. If, halfway through, at the end an interestingly edited hotel sequence where Bob is propositioned by a woman he met on a flight from one life to another, you aren't puddy in James Wolk's hands... well, by all means, this show is not for you. And I don't mean that in a bad way. This show is not for everyone. Again. Soap opera. Con artist. Extramarital affairs. I'm not going to berate you into loving the show or tell you that you're stupid if you don't (cough, Mad Men fanatics, cough). But it's definitely not like anything we've had the pleasure of seeing on network TV in some time.
Truly, that hotel sequence made my hair stand on end... both times I watched the pilot, even though at the Paley Center screening I knew it was coming and what was happening. That's that good writing, directing, acting, and editing. It's all you can ask for. Until you get to series and wonder if that kind of powerfully moving thing can be replicated on a weekly basis.
The truth is, there are flaws in Lone Star that, I hope, will be rectified in future episodes. As compelling a character as I found Bob, I need to know more about the women in his life, about Cat Thatcher (Adrienne Palicki) and Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). We don't spend a lot of time with them and I want to know what makes them tick beyond "Cat is the daughter of a wealthy oil magnate" and "Lindsay is a small town girl."
We get a bit more about the other characters surrounding Bob, mostly the characters in his life with Houston. Cat's father, Clint (Jon Voight), is a self-made man who puts family above all doesn't tolerate betrayal. It's implied he has his own brother (or perhaps brother-in-law?), "Uncle Roy," murdered. Cat's older brother, Tram (Mark Deklin), is an MBA, a consummate businessman, and sees Bob as a threat. Drew, Cat's younger brother, has a bit of a Don Quixote complex (at least that's how I read him) and is a ladies' man. I'd actually forgotten just how charming Bryce Johnson was in the role, and the Paley screening reminded me. In a show with a very serious, dramatic tone, Drew is a breath of fresh, comedic, enthusiastic air (his "Windfarm. Sweet." towards the end of the pilot is unfairly charming given that it's all of two words).
And then there's Bob's father, John, played by David Keith. A life-long con artist who brought his son along for the ride (and the getaway) all his life. It's the only life he knows, the only life he wants... and he wants his son with him. So when his son starts wavering and talking about "having something real," there are problems. Though I admit that I am a little sick of hearing the "It's a house of cards, son, you don't get to live in it" line in promos for the show that've aired during So You Think You Can Dance.
While, on a surface level, Lone Star is about a con man trying to go straight (even while cheating on his wife with another girl... so, yeah, there are still flaws and shades of gray in Bob), so it plays with redemption and aspirational themes... it's about family. Bob and his father, on the grift and on the run for 20+ years. Bob and the Thatchers. Bob and Lindsay and others in the town of Midland. Despite all the other trappings and their complexities, that's something easy to understand and easy to get into. And you know that everything that happens in the show is going to be generated by the characters. By what these people want, what their goals are. That's what we mean by "character-driven." There are those who have seen the pilot and been intrigued, then asked "okay, I like it, but how long can they keep it up?" Wouldn't it be fun to find out? Isn't that half the fun of watching shows like Breaking Bad, where we ask just how long the dance can keep going? Besides, even if Bob were to succeed in going straight and the "con artist" plot that runs through the pilot played out, he'd still have two love lives to balance. Anyway, I think it's a valid, but easily brushed aside, concern.
Is The Event about family, too? Yes. A lot of TV shows are about the odd families we make with those around us, be they Scooby gangs or CSI teams. But everything in The Event is driven by, well, "the event" that is mysterious and eludes us even in the pilot. It's all external. It's "plot-driven." Which isn't a bad thing, necessarily.
But it has an expiration date on being intriguing without character. Remember Flashforward. Big premiere. Quick decline.
My fingers are crossed for Lone Star's success, if for no other reason than it will encourage development of more daring (for broadcast networks) character pieces to go along with the eternal glut of crime procedurals.