Kyle Killen, the creator of the new Fox series Lone Star, wrote an open letter beseeching the greater American television audience to watch his show. Why would a writer need to do such a thing? Well, in case you haven't heard, Lone Star debuted to terrible numbers: In today's television landscape, a 1.3 rating equating to 4.1 million viewers ain't gonna cut it.
Fox promoted the hell out of the show. In fact, with the exception of NBC's The Event and ABC's My Generation, no other series of commercials for new fall season shows had become more annoying. Additionally, even with as much ad money behind it, the Monday at 9 p.m. timeslot remains so competitive, Fox likely had reasonable and moderate expectations for the early numbers.
But the shockingly low number fell too far, and even worse was the consistent decline seen over each quarter-hour. After watching the pilot myself, though, and then re-examining the time-slot, I can't say I'm so surprised.
Don't get me wrong: Now having seen all but a few of the first episodes from this season's new shows, Lone Star definitely takes its place among the most intriguing prospects of this young season. As I wrote about Monday, a pilot can only tell so much, and my "first take"s are just that: initial impressions based on one hour of what will, would and should be just a small part of a larger story. Lone Star has so many twists and complexities inherent in its premise, its ability to sustain itself over the course of an entire season—much less several—remains highly suspect. But its first episode also does precisely what every pilot should, and that's make you want to come back for more.
Still, I can see how the pilot's opening minutes might have confused some viewers. For those hanging around for a few minutes after House, it would have been really easy to say, "What's going on here? Meh, I wonder if Bristol's dancing yet?" Simply following the opening 10 minutes of Lone Star took a certain degree of attention, not due to bad writing, but out of Killen and episode director Marc Webb's determination to set the scene with a degree of intrigue and complexity. This degree of sophistication in the writing, however, may have backfired, not from the perspective of quality, but from easy accessibility.
The series has an interesting pedigree: Killen is a newbee to the TV scene, but has had his fiction published in numerous notable places, and wrote the screenplay for Jodie Foster's The Beaver, still awaiting a release. Producers Christopher Keyser & Amy Lippman were responsible for the mid-'90s Fox hit Party of Five. Also on the producing roster? Paul Weitz (as executive producer) and his brother Chris (as consulting producer). Now, I don't remember the specifics of a lot of Fox's promotion for the series, but I don't remember seeing anything mentioning "From the people behind Party of Five, Ameican Pie and Twilight: New Moon. Granted, such promotion would have given an audience absolutely no realistic idea of what it was in for, but networks and film studios do that all the time, and it could have attracted more eyes.
Meanwhile, yes, the Marc Webb who directed the pilot is the same one whose (500) Days of Summer earned him the big-ticket payday/responsibility of relaunching Spider Man. Webb's presence should prove unsurprising after hearing first the low tinkle of Rogue Wave's "Eyes" followed by Mumford & Sons' great song "The Cave;" both within the first five minutes. (More music from Mumford & Sons as well as Cold War Kids, Jose Gonzalez and The Antlers follows.)
Even with all this promotion and interesting conglomeration of behind-the-camera talent, Fox gave Lone Star a nearly impossible task anyway. Trying to compare the success of The Event to the failure of Lone Star doesn't take any of the tangibles (no "in-" necessary) into account.
Regardless of the popularity and lead-in of House the established programming in the Monday at 9 p.m. hour has the distinction of being among the most competitive anywhere on television, even as the two most popular shows also rank among the worst (at least in my book). ABC offers the enormously popular Dancing With the Stars, which often wins the night and takes a huge chunk out of the adult female demographic. Over on CBS, the (inexplicably) most-watched-sitcom-anywhere-on-television—Two & a Half Men—keeps the laugh-tracks active. Meanwhile, the football-watching crowd glues itself to ESPN's Monday Night Football while The CW only offers their hottest teen drama hit, Gossip Girl.
There aren't that many demos left, and then when you throw The Event into the equation, critics-praise be damned. Lone Star is far and away a better pilot than The Event. I would also bet that its series prospects are much more interesting (and less annoying) than those of NBC's most-hyped new show. But in this case, quality doesn't matter.
As the last couple seasons have proved, audiences love big, clock-ticking, action-oriented, mysterious series promising weird twists and turns, and NBC took promotional advantage of the sensational elements in this series, almost without even showing any clips from it. Instead, they made the (obviously wise) decision to turn the whole series into an event. Ironically, Fox pioneered the practice of creating hit shows simply hyping them as hit shows over 20 years ago with the launch of Beverly Hills 90210, and now, NBC has handed the mantle of Heroes, Lost and 24 to The Event simply through its title and several on-air ads featuring recognizable starts saying things like, "I couldn't tell him about the event!" Ooooh, the drama. The intrigue!
For me, the show was not that much more satisfying. It was fine, but I felt the exact same way as I did at the end of the first episode of last year's FlashForward on ABC: kinda curious, but they better give me more to hold on to really quickly otherwise I'm gone. But my "first take" on The Event will come later. The point is, for an audience that just lost 24 (in this time slot too, natch) as well as Lost, the possibilities from a show like The Event are at least worth checking out. Throw-in some notable TV names like Blair Underwood, Laura Innes and Jason Ritter, and how exactly was Fox's promotion—focusing on a man who seemed to have two lives and maybe two wives—going to prove as enticing? There or not, I missed the larger con-game premise and morality tale that serves as the true foundation for Lone Star; the moral conflict inherent within the main character; or the fascinating father-son relationship that complicates everything. All I noticed from the Fox promotion was that this unrecognizable actor apparently got to sleep with two really hot women!
Fox will give Lone Star a second chance this Monday, but the uptick required to avoid cancellation seems like an impossibility. Killen hopes for "a stunning upset," and since Fox likely needs to see at least a 75-100% increase in viewership, "stunning upset" may be an understatement. The various trades and TV blogs already call Lone Star's cancellation a fait accompli, which wouldn't be so sad if it had ever been given a realistic chance. It might have had one in just about any other slot on the weekly schedule.
The entire situation reminds me of another short-lived but critically admired Fox series: Profit launched as a mid-season replacement in April 1996, on Mondays at 9 p.m. The TV landscape was smaller then, and since it was the Spirng, Profit never even faced the ABC juggernaut-that-was, Monday Night Football 9at the time, a regular top 10—often top five—Nielsen performer). In fact, the only real competition it had was CBS's Murphy Brown. Profit's first episode was intriguing but complicated, with a central character who wasn't exactly warm and fuzzy and challenged larger audiences to empathize with him. A few episodes later, it was gone, only to find its cult status resurrected years later on DVD and thanks to the late-Trio network's "Brilliant but cancelled."
Fox muffed this one. Nothing about Lone Star screams "instant hit," and I'm not sure precisely what audience they hoped to nab in that time-slot. Lie to Me, which previously aired here to moderate success, at least offered audiences a recognizable star in Tim Roth and essentially a procedural, case-of-the-week format to help grab viewers when building off the House lead-in. But with Lone Star, they looked like they were giving us a cheating husband living every douchebag's dream.
There's another element, though, which I haven't seen mentioned anywhere: Fox made the pilot episode of Lone Star widely available for viewing before Monday. I know I could have downloaded it from Amazon.com for free to my computer or my TiVo. I also received a DVD of the pilot episode in the latest issue of Vanity Fair. I'm guessing those were not the only two places one could find it beforehand. In all likelihood, the effect was negligible at best, and these kind of sneak previews via promotional DVDs or online sneak previews have become somewhat commonplace. Still, might a significant amount of audience skipped Monday night simply because they had already seen the episode?
Probably not significant enough. I would love to see Fox give this show another chance down-the-line in a more opportunistic time-slot. Or maybe, give it to F/X; it seems like a potentially nice fit for the sibling cable net. It would be a shame to see such a promising new series die so quick a death. Hopefully, a few more Nielsen households will decide to give it a chance this week, but if I was Killen, I wouldn't put too many hopes on his "stunning upset."