Charming con man makes his own luck -- and a life with two different wives

By Michael Slezak
September 21, 2010 at 09:30 AM EDT
Bill Matlock/Fox
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Watching last night’s series premiere of Lone Star got me thinking about a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which quite by coincidence, I read for the first time in my life just last week: He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

And while I’m sure it’d be considered blasphemy in certain English lit departments to draw comparisons between one of the all-time great twentieth-century American novels and the pilot episode of Fox’s ambitious new drama, I’d argue that at least when it comes to flashing his pearly whites, Lone Star‘s Bob Allen (James Wolk) is positively Gatsby-esque. That montage of our slippery (anti)hero out on the road, duping potential investors into signing over their savings to get a piece of some mythical “rock,” was fueled by a grin so easy, so open, so disarming, that it trumped any words which accompanied it, or any stack of singles (covered by a couple of strategically placed hundreds) that he’d later store so theatrically in his briefcase.

Talk about a tricky concept, though: For Lone Star to work, you have to get caught up in Bob’s charm, succumb to whatever long con he’s taking you on, no matter who’s going to get hurt in the process, or how lovely they are. For the moment, I’m more worried about Bob’s wealthy Houston wife Cat (Adrianne Palicki), who seems a little less generic-saintly than his middle-class bride-to-be Lindsay (Eloise Mumford). Cat will toss back a breakfast shot at 10 a.m. (at least if it’s to test her brother’s idea for a hangover blocker); she’ll skip a charity event for an impromptu roll in the sheets; and she’ll dish party gossip with delightfully vicious glee (“You know how the human body’s supposed to be 70 percent water? Chicky over there? 80 percent silicone, 20 percent Merlot.”) Lindsay, meanwhile, is less well-defined at this point. She quite possibly has a halo tucked under those lovely blond tresses, but then again, she’s honest enough to admit that she enjoys seeing her man throw a punch to defend her honor. (Here’s hoping that goofy ex of hers doesn’t keep stopping by to act all good-ole-boy-like, right?)

Yet as compelling as Bob’s “I love yous” are — didn’t you adore the hotel fake-out where he gave that sultry divorcee “two good reasons” he shouldn’t cheat, and neither one of ’em was  a reference to a Carrie Underwood song lyric? — we have to remember that at any given time, there’s a cellphone and a wallet tucked inside his briefcase, and not even the world’s most powerful rubber band is going to be able to contain the betrayal and hurt his wives will feel when the truth comes out.

Next: When is a 95-cent soda worth $50?

And nope, it’s no excuse that Bob is such a compelling con artist, he can’t even figure out when he’s playing himself. What a heartbreaker of a moment in that washed-out strip mall, when Bob, his voice quavering like the legs of a baby taking its tentative first steps, tried to convince his father (David Keith) and himself that maybe he could take that job at his father-in-law’s oil company and try going straight. “You’re a con man, son. This is what you do. This is who you are,” daddy dearest spat back. “I’m the one that loves you for who you are. Not for who you pretend to be.”

By the bye, I realized as I typed the previous paragraph that “playing himself” is a loaded term. For Bob to live in his own house of cards, to insist he’s motivated by love, not money, he has to “play”/dupe himself every morning into thinking that there’s a nobility in his duplicity, that on some level he’s doing right by Cat and Lindsay. And on that note, he’s “playing”/portraying himself — in a variety of guises — waking up in whatever bed or hotel he needs to be in, and choosing which persona will have to be slipped on along with a pair of boots and a crisp white dress shirt. What will you be today, sir? Skyrocketing young oil exec? Homespun venture capitalist? Doting upper-class husband? Rugged boyfriend (complete with push-mower and un-metrosexual chest hair)?

Interesting, then, that Bob’s “realest” moment arrived when only a total stranger could see him. After Bob’s father arrived in Midland and told him their “mineral” scam was about to be exposed, our protagonist bid a tearful, middle-of-the-night goodbye to a sleeping Lindsay: “I might be a little while this time,” he whispered, unable to look back at the woman whose life he was about to destroy. And then, under the harsh fluorescents of a roadside gas station, his smile finally abandoned him. Bob watched silently as a kid behind the counter got bullied by his shoplifting dad — “That’s my boy,” said the stand-in for every monster of a father that ever roared — then he waited for Bad Dad to leave,  walked over, and plunked down a $50 to cover the damages. “It’s for me and the last guy; I know what it’s like,” Bob admitted before going back outside and tossing the remnants of his Midland life into the trash. Maybe it was the fact that the Antlers’ gut-wrenching “Kettering” was playing in the background, but for once, “man weeps behind the steering wheel” didn’t play out like an embarrassing cliché. This one activated my tear ducts.

Next: Who’s the daddy?Based on tonight’s hour, it’s clear Bob’s daddy issues are going to be an overarching theme in Lone Star. Right from the almost comic (until it wasn’t) intro, we had little Bob literally leaving behind his childhood in a hotel closet as he and his dad fled from a scam gone bad. Most kids get “Look both ways before crossing.” Bob got “Keep your life in the case, not in the closet, okay?” But will Bob gravitate toward the man who raised him, or the man who’s raising him up the corporate ladder, father-in-law Clint (Jon Voight)? And which of these guys is a more dubious role model? I think if Clint’s brother, the late (but perhaps not lamented) “Uncle Roy,” could talk, he might advise Bob that he’s better off sticking with the devil who wants to move to “an island full of topless women,” rather than the one who likes to mount the heads of “shady characters” on the wall of his den.

Then again, maybe Robert Allen is on the path to being his own man, and maybe it’s the love of two good women that will help him arrive at his destination. Cat certainly gets a ton of credit for a speech that was meant to inspire Bob to grasp the key to that executive office, but alas, had the undesired affect of encouraging him to give polygamy a chance: “Baby, people who believe they can have it all, they’re the ones who end up with everything. You’re not here by accident. You make your own luck, Bob. That’s why I married you.” At the very least, our man possesses bravado. “You’re gonna steal from your real job to pay back the debt from your imaginary one?” his dad asked incredulously.

Bob’s decision to back brother-in-law Drew (Bryce Johnson, still fondly remembered from Popular and Undressed) and his wind-farm idea wasn’t merely about diversifying the business, though: For starters, our conman has to know that by backing an idea from the less-well-regarded of the Thatcher brothers, he’s keeping himself in the “relationship business” — and perhaps finding a wedge to drive Drew away from Tram, the more suspicious of Team Thatcher Genes. Oh, and yeah, what about buying the not-quite-abundant lands in Midland — the ones Lindsay’s parents and all their friends invested in — as a testing round for said wind farm? Or what about using Cat’s pep talk as a reason to whisk Lindsay to Vegas for an impromptu wedding? You knew exactly what Bob would say the minute she chided him that it’s bad luck to see the bride’s dress before the wedding: “I make my own luck.” As his dad would attest, the kid has moves nobody’s ever seen.

What did you think of the Lone Star premiere? What were your favorite and least favorite parts? Will you tune in next week? Did you get as squeamish as Bob when Lindsay’s parents talked about using some of their investment money to finally go to Europe? And what was with Bob’s dad trying to even wrest control of his son’s breakfast order? In other words, what if the kid didn’t want pancakes? Finally: Whether or not Lone Star ends up having legs — and I sure hope it will! — James Wolk is totally a star, is he not?

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