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Television Review

He’s good, bad, and beguiling

Actor’s charm helps ‘Lone Star’ shine

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 20, 2010

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‘Lone Star’’ is a bit of a “Dallas’’ baby. The new Fox drama contains many traditional soap opera ingredients — a wealthy Texas oil family, a patriarch (played by veteran actor Jon Voight) who’s tough but fair, and divisive siblings vying for Daddy’s love and riches. Don’t rule out the possibility of a midseason not-really-dead-after-all spouse or a from-out-of-nowhere twin.

But what I like about “Lone Star,’’ what could make it the strongest TV newcomer of the season, is the ways in which it differs from classic nighttime melodramas. The show, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, is as much a bittersweet character study of con man Bob Allen as it is a new spin on the Ewings. To some extent, the Fox show operates something like a cable drama, as it toys with moral ambiguity and instills its hero with both cruelty and nobility. He is one of America’s torn-apart sons, looking for — and finding — happiness and money, but unable to sleep at night.

Played with impressive depth by James Wolk, Bob was taught to con by his crooked father, John (David Keith). Bob works the game even better than John, lying to his marks with a trustworthy wink. He’s the Robert De Niro of flim-flam, performing scams with a Method-like commitment. At the same time, Bob wants out of the game. He desperately wants to be “real,’’ to stop acting and settle in.

Obviously, Bob is a bad guy. He’s living two lives, and leaving a trail of victims across the state. In Houston, he’s a devoted husband to Cat (Adrianne Palicki from “Friday Night Lights’’), whose father, Voight’s Clint Thatcher, is quite fond of him. He’s winding his way into the family’s trust in hopes of an ultimate payday. Meanwhile, some 400 miles away in Midland, he’s living with — and in love with — a girlfriend, Lindsay (Eloise Mumford), while quietly bilking her loved ones. Each of Bob’s families thinks he travels for extended periods and stays in hotels for his job.

But he’s also a good guy in profound ways, and the show and Wolk portray that persuasively. For one thing, Bob genuinely loves both women. “Lone Star’’ doesn’t lead us to think he truly belongs with one more than the other; it only makes us wish he could make them both work simultaneously. Wolk has an appealing George Clooney-like ability to be warmly sincere and believable with just a smile and a nod.

And Bob is deeply loyal to his father, who pressures him to continue cheating. Their relationship made me think of the connection between Dexter and Harry on “Dexter,’’ where the father has an almost mystical power over the son. When John realizes that Bob has been investing emotion in his lives in Midland and Houston, he lectures him as if he were still a child: “This is a house of cards,’’ he says. “You don’t get to live in it.’’ They may have had a sweeter, more “Paper Moon’’-like rapport when Bob was young, but now John’s self-interest and psychological abuse of his son are hard to romanticize.

When Bob is in Midland with Lindsay, his life is cozy. And he loves it — mowing the lawn of their bungalow, tending to the grill at a neighborhood barbecue. He’s living out his fantasy of a simple life without cons. In Houston, he falls into the role of the self-made man whose father-in-law likes him more than he likes his own sons. With Cat, with whom he has an enduring bond, he feels more like an eager, ambitious up-and-comer. He fits in so nicely in each world, you kind of want him to have it all — before you remember all the deception involved.

Can “Lone Star’’ continue with the same kind of understated tone as the premiere? I’d hate to see this show become too plot driven, with Bob struggling madly to keep his wife and his girlfriend from meeting. Here’s hoping the writers find it compelling enough to dramatize a man trying to undo the way he was raised, to stop playing roles and just play himself.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

LONE STAR

Starring: James Wolk, Jon Voight, Adrianne Palicki, Eloise Mumford

On: Fox, Channel 25

Time: Tonight, 9-10