Critically acclaimed series can't lasso viewers
“Lone Star” is Texas toast.
Critics gushed over “Lone Star,” praising Fox for striking oil with what was arguably this fall’s best-reviewed new broadcast series. But on Monday night, viewers capped that well.
The quick failure of “Lone Star” could have ramifications on next season’s development, and may also once again rip open the debate over whether critics hold much sway over viewers.
“Viewers 1, critics 0,” quipped one exec.
“Lone Star” is now on track to be this year’s first cancelled series. The turn of events is stunning, and left many execs both inside and outside Fox and 20th Century Fox TV taking stock of what went wrong. The answer: A lot.
Fox execs met Tuesday morning to discuss the fate of “Lone Star”; nothing has been decided yet. The network may opt to give the show one more run, just to see whether viewers who caught “The Event” or “Dancing With the Stars” in week one decide to give it a try.
No one expected “Lone Star” to open huge out of the gate. Given the show’s “Dancing”/ “Two and a Half Men”/ “Event” competish (not to mention football on ESPN), most predicted a last-place finish among the Big Four at 9 p.m.
But “Lone Star” could double its 1.3 adults 18-49 rating and still be a middling player at best. Because it’s shaping up to be an ultra-competitive fall, with the demo race coming down to tenths of a ratings point, Fox won’t have the luxury to show much patience for a show performing that poorly. Net knows it also faces another low-rated player in Friday’s “The Good Guys” – and won’t want both of those shows dragging down its average for long.
As a result, “Lone Star” will be lucky to see week two.
“I’ve never seen a show drop like that,” said one rival network exec. “It wasn’t just rejection at the top, but a continual rejection of the show throughout the hour.”
“Lone Star’s” one saving grace remains its strong support from crix. The show repped one of the few new broadcast entries to score above a 70% favorability rating on review aggregator Metacritic. TV Guide’s Matt Roush picked “Lone Star” as “this fall’s best and most original drama,” while Variety ‘s Brian Lowry called it “among the boldest bets from a major net this season.”
A few possible reasons viewers didn’t tune in to “Lone Star”:
• An ambiguous anti-hero lead. In a season marked by blue-sky franchise procedurals like “Hawaii Five-0,” “Detroit 1-8-7” and “Blue Bloods,” “Lone Star” stood out from the pack.
“Lone Star” centers on con man Bob Allen (James Wolk), who manages to infiltrate a Houston oil company, get in good with the boss (Jon Voight) and marry his daughter (Adrianne Palicki). While playing that ruse, dreamt up by his dad (David Keith), Bob is also living a double life in small town Midland, Texas, where he’s got a girlfriend and more marks.
The show’s set-up showcased the kind of complicated character that critics love. Viewers aren’t nearly as keen on not knowing how to feel about a central character, but have been willing to embrace anti-heroes as well, at least on cable (Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey).
But ultimately, Wolk’s character may have been too ambiguous: He wasn’t a straight-out baddie like a Tony Soprano — whom we saw kill a man in the series pilot — yet doesn’t redeem himself either, having married two different women.
With viewers turning their back on such a nuanced and complicated premise, execs plotting next year’s development rosters might be wondering whether to add more blue-sky fare to the mix, and perhaps cut back on scripts that might be considered a tough sell with viewers.
• Mixed marketing. The “Lone Star” campaign, which featured shots of Wolk with two different women, may not have adequately described the show’s complex conceit. Some even wondered whether the show’s Texas setting and Wolk’s physical resemblance to “Friday Night Lights” star Kyle Chandler might have confused auds — who might have glanced over it, thinking they’d already seen this show.
Whatever the reason, “Lone Star” was in the middle of the pack when it came to awareness levels, surpassed at Fox by “Raising Hope.” The show also wasn’t among the top entries in the “intent to view” column among potential viewers — a sign that trouble may have been brewing.
• Scheduling. Many Tuesday-morning quarterbacks have wondered whether Fox should have held back on “Lone Star” and waited until later in the fall or midseason to promote such a hard-to-categorize show out of the fall noise.
But Fox was hampered in some ways: Another Monday contender, Shawn Ryan’s “Ridealong,” wasn’t available until midseason due to Ryan’s commitment to FX’s “Terriers.” But Fox must still spend much of October focusing on its slice of baseball playoffs and the World Series, making a launch there difficult. November? Not enough time before the holidays and the January schedule change.
Fox made the decision to join the other networks in launching virtually all of its wares during premiere week.
• “Lone Star’s” setting. With its oil wells, strip malls and cowboy hats, some rivals wondered whether “Lone Star” may have been too rural for Fox’s audience. It’s the same problem that “Friday Night Lights” faced on NBC.
Some rivals wondered whether “Lone Star” fit Fox’s brand. But as Fox went broad over the past decade and became the No. 1 network in key demos, what is or isn’t in the Fox brand wheelhouse has been tougher to discern. “American Idol” and “Glee” might not have fit Fox’s brand, but they became big hits — and as a result, part of the brand. Given its complicated conceit, “Lone Star” could have easily fit Fox’s brand as well — yet viewers passed.
• The Situation. “Dancing With the Stars” has apparently hit casting gold, as the competish’s reality-heavy star power drove the premiere to monster ratings in viewers and adults 18-49. Older female viewers, who were “Lone Star’s” most logical audience, just couldn’t resist the lure of “Jersey Shoe’s” Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and his fellow “Dancing” contestants.
Fox is no stranger to swing-for-the-fences series that were ultimately DOA. Past fall graveyards include tombstones for “Skin,” which lasted just three weeks in 2003, and “Girls Club,” which aired just two segs in 2002.
“Lone Star” appears destined now to join that short timers’ club.