Lone Star, “Pilot”; or, “Sopranos Lite fails the Bechdel Test”
So my ladylove and I just (finally!) started watching Breaking Bad, and while I’m really enjoying it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before—as The Sopranos. And Dexter. And Mad Men. Apparently, the way to mark a show as Serious Television is to structure your story around a sociopath with a heart of gold. Or, put more generously, the question that seems to be guiding so many of the dominant narratives in our culture right now is this one: “How do men live with themselves after doing terrible things?” I’m not using “men” as code for “humanity” here—the question does seem to be one about men, quite literally. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the gendered nature of this concern becomes more obvious as the narrative in question is pitched to a wider audience.
Lone Star is the newest story in this mold, a narrative of a con man caught between two worlds; neither is “real,” but each offers a different version of the American dream: small-town or Big Time. The first episode actually feels a lot like the opening of Mad Men, but without the lush period detail or the mystery. After we get some economical backstory on the central father-son pair, there’s a nice mislead as the main character, Bob Allen (James Wolk) shuttles back and forth between mutually exclusive lives, with a wife in each. It’s shades of Midge and Betty, but the female characters are ciphers (so far, at least), each standing in for a different Way of Life, but with hardly any distinguishing features. I’m hoping this will change as the show goes on, but right now, they’re symbols more than real characters. The scrubbed, wide-eyed blonde is small-town America (Midland, TX, to be specific), and shares a split-level ranch house with Bob where he insists on mowing the lawn (shirtless, of course) himself instead of hiring a local kid. The other wife is dark-haired and stands in for access to unearned privilege and wealth. I’d be surprised if she didn’t turn out to be the bad one.
Ironically, as irritating as the wholly symbolic nature of the women in the story was to me, I loved the way the episode worked with more traditional symbols, like Bob’s suitcase or the two cellphones he has to carry with him to try to keep his different lives straight. The suitcase is a lot like the show—it’s not that original, but it’s a beautiful physical object, and it feels real. Although the trope of the Flawed Man with Too Much Power is starting to wear on me, the specific shots and music in Lone Star are gorgeous, and the central performance by James Wolk is really strong. He’s grinny and charming, but there’s a needy edge to his character that might prove really interesting if the show is given a chance to develop, and if its premise proves able to hold the weight of a full season, much less more than one.
As a side note, I watched this on the plane on the way back from San Francisco this weekend (hooray for JetBlue!), so I had to choose between it and The Event. It was a last-minute decision, but the dialogue in the endless previews for The Event looked too painful to watch without the option of pausing or fast forwarding, so I’m going to catch it on Hulu today. Hooray for living in the future!
Also to come in the Week of Premieres: Boardwalk Empire (I know it’s out of order, but I was away); How I Met Your Mother; Glee; Running Wilde; 30 Rock; Dexter.
Any other requests?