Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
James Wolk should be a huge TV star.
I know what you are thinking: Don’t we have enough white male TV stars? We totally, absolutely, 1000% do. But I’m here to tell you James Wolk should be one of them. The Fox drama Lone Star, which premiered in September 2010, should have made him a household name overnight.
I don’t like being wrong. Especially when it comes to television. I pride myself on having a sense of whether or not a show will connect with viewers. Great pilots truly pop. For example, I knew the minute I watched The Good Wife, The O.C., Arrested Development and (more recently) Ted Lasso and The Flight Attendant that these shows would create pop culture buzz.
Never have I been more sure of myself than when I watched the first two episode Lone Star from series creator Kyle Killen. Let me take you back to 2010. This was three years before Netflix introduced House of Cards, its first original series. Seven years before the launch of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. Nine years before Disney+ became our destination for all things Marvel and Star Wars. Years before the term “bingeing” worked its way into our everyday lexicon.
That is to say network television was still very much a player. While the OG American Idol dominated the ratings, scripted shows including Lost, Desperate Housewives, and House ended the 2009-2010 season in the top ten. It was into this crackling network atmosphere that Lone Star premiered, and introduced Robert Allen (James Wolk), a charismatic man with a devilish grin, leading a double life. In Houston, he was Bob, married to Cat (Adrianne Palicki, fresh off her run on Friday Night Lights) trying to make it as a big shot in the oil industry. In Midland, he was living a completely separate life with his girlfriend Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). I was riveted by the first two episodes Fox made available for critics. The show was the just right mix of mystery, drama, and dark humor. I felt like I was seeing something truly special. That we TV critics were in on a secret. We knew about James Wolk before anyone else!
While Lone Star had some detractors, the reviews for the series were mostly overwhelmingly positive. NPR critic Linda Holmes wrote, “It would be tough to overstate just how good Wolk is here: He conveys Bob’s flashes of panic and conflict so that a viewer can see them, but his targets credibly might not.” Critic Emily VanDerWerff said in her review for the AV Club, “Lone Star is, hands down, the best network pilot of the year… It’s confident, mature, ambitious television that doesn’t feel the need to telegraph absolutely everything it does, that allows moments to play out in near silence as lead character Bob Allen (the wonderful discovery James Wolk) puzzles out just how he’s going to keep the elaborate sham that is his life going.”
It’s the phrase “the wonderful discovery James Wolk” that is the biggest gut punch. Lone Star was a show that wouldn’t work without Wolk, and he made it soar. When I watched the first two episodes of Lone Star, I was convinced (convinced!) that James Wolk was television’s next big TV star, and that the series would launch him into overnight fame the way Mad Men did for Jon Hamm. Wolk is extraordinarily handsome with a palpable charisma that travelled over the airwaves. This was one of those magic moments where the role, the series and the actor all converge to create one of television’s most memorable characters. Lone Star could have (should have?) been one those great TV series we still talk about. Sure the show could have crashed and burned or gone off the rails, but we will never know because the premiere of the show on September 20, 2010 drew 4.1 million viewers. Ratings declined the next week and the show was unceremoniously cancelled after just airing two episodes. It was the first causality of the 2010/2011 television season.
Want to hear something really crazy? NBC’s freshman comedy Kenan which was just picked up for a second season and averaged 4.226 million viewers. The most recent episode of 911: Lone Star (yes, to add insult to injury, it has “Lone Star” in the title) averaged 4.8 million viewers. ABC’s hit series The Good Doctor had just 3.7 million viewers when it last aired. NBC’s beloved musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist had its best numbers of the season when it drew 1.4 million viewers on April 11. Sure Zoey might not get a third season, but it got two. Lone Star got two episodes with triple the numbers. Yes it’s a different time now, with DVR playback and streaming platforms that don’t release their ratings. Comparing ratings then to ratings now is the epitome of comparing apples to oranges. But here’s what I’m pretty confident in—if it premiered tomorrow, Lone Star would be given a fighting chance. Networks know that the days of huge ratings are behind them and that there are multiple opportunities for a viewer to discover their shows exist. Lone Star could have been the perfect drama for a niche streaming platform. Could I see in on AppleTV+ or SundanceNow? Yes I could. So much of TV is right place, right time and Lone Star’s timing was, most regrettably, totally off.
The sad thing is, if you missed the show’s brief time on air, you’ll just have to take my word for it. You can’t watch any episodes of Lone Star today. They don’t appear to be anywhere online. There’s no way to find not only the first two episodes but the four episodes that were filmed but never aired. When I moved a couple of years ago, I found my screener DVD that FOX sent out in advance of the show. I kind of think maybe I should keep it in a safety deposit box. It may be my most prized TV possession. Now to find a DVD player to play it on!
Wolk, of course, went on to other projects. The USA miniseries Political Animals in 2012, the 2015 drama Zoo which ran for two seasons on CBS, and he was Joe Keene in HBO’s Watchmen. Next season he will be seen in NBC’s Ordinary Joe where he plays the title character in a drama that explores how Joe’s three parallel lives play out depending on the choices he makes at pivotal points in his life. It seems like yet another perfect venue for Wolk. But I’m trying to manage my expectations. It’s the whole “fool me once” axiom. I can only hope that a decade later Wolk is dealing with the disappointment better than I am.
One of Wolk’s most memorable roles came when he played Bob Benson for 12 episodes of Mad Men. Once again he played another con man of sorts. Viewers never quite knew what Bob and his short shorts were up to, but he launched the meme that just keeps on giving. It also sums up how I feel about Lone Star’s abrupt cancellation all these years later. “Not great, Bob!”
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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