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'Lone Star,' James Wolk shine in Fox's fall lineup

Jon Voight, left, and James Wolk star in "Lone Star," which premieres Monday at 8 p.m.
Jon Voight, left, and James Wolk star in "Lone Star," which premieres Monday at 8 p.m.
Bill Matlock

There's no better broadcast-network-series pilot this fall than Fox's "Lone Star," the story of a con man so "aw, shucks"-likable that you can't hate him no matter how harmful his actions.

Credit a strong script by series creator Kyle Killen and a layered performance by newcomer James Wolk for making "Lone Star" (8 p.m. Ch. 13, Monday) fall's standout series.

Wolk stars as a man leading a double life. In Midland, Texas, he's Robert Allen, a businessman selling mineral rights as investments that help keep his girlfriend's parents solvent (or so they think). In Houston, he's Bob Allen, husband of Cat Thatcher (Adrianne Palicki, "Friday Night Lights") and son-in-law of oil-company owner Clint (Jon Voight).

In the premiere, Clint asks Bob to come work for the company, much to the chagrin of Clint's eldest son, Trammell (Mark Deklin), the only family member who senses Bob may not be as pure as he seems. Younger Thatcher son Drew (Bryce Johnson, "Popular") is more eager to welcome Bob into the family business.

Bob's con-man father, John (David Keith), is thrilled to have Bob on the inside. But Bob's not so sure; he even contemplates going straight, which results in one warped fatherly lecture.

"I've always taught you, you can play any character you want but don't play yourself," John admonishes. "That's what lets you walk away when the time is right."

Despicable Dad thinks it's time for Bob to walk away from his girlfriend in Midland, but Bob is genuinely conflicted, both by the prospect of losing her and how his scam may harm her parents.

There's no question that "Lone Star" is a soap opera, but it's a surprisingly complex soap that revels in the characters' contradictions and especially the father-son bond between John and Bob. In the pilot's most affecting scene, Bob watches as another lousy father terrorizes his convenience-store-clerk son at the boy's workplace. It's a feeling of helplessness Bob knows well. Even as a grown man, he continues to allow his father to control him.

"She's not your real wife. She's not your family. She's the mark," John says of Bob's wife, Cat. "Don't kid yourself. I am your family. I'm the one who loves you for who you are, not for what you pretend to be."

That's some potent manipulation.

Although his father comes across as menacing and selfish, Bob has a light touch when he's in con-man mode. When meeting with a potential investor in a bogus business, Bob tells the man that, if he's uncomfortable, he doesn't have to invest: "I can sell your shares a thousand times, but I can only be your friend once." The guy writes a check.

There are plenty of occasions where self-deprecating, super-sincere Bob seems close to renouncing the con game. That Bob's character comes out in an array of gray hues is a testament to Wolk's charismatic performance. He even sells a scene where Bob, given an opportunity to cheat on his wife and girlfriend, refuses. Despite his two-timing, it's believable that Bob has his own moral code that does not allow him to step out on the two women he's committed to. It's a crazy concept, but Wolk has a grinning, winning way about him that makes Bob's stance seem somehow principled.

It remains to be seen whether creator Killen and executive producers Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman ("Party of Five") can find a way to keep "Lone Star" interesting without rehashing plots or painting themselves into too many corners. The show's concept suffers from the same challenges as cable's secret-identity drama "Dexter," but at least that Showtime series only has to produce 13 episodes a year compared to the 22-episode order, in success, that Fox will demand from "Lone Star."

Whatever the risks, it's a relief to see that at least one fall broadcast-network show will not play it safe. For that reason alone, "Lone Star" shines.

Dist.by Scripps Howard News Service

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