Among the boldest bets from a major net this season, "Lone Star" bursts out of the starting gate -- a big, sprawling, perfectly cast soap, with talent to burn. Central to its appeal is James Wolk as a likable grifter, leading a double life that makes the whole affair fraught with tension. That kind of high-wire act always invites skepticism, but the pilot is so slickly executed as to raise hope for a happier fate than that of "Profit," the Fox antihero series this most closely resembles. If nothing else, the prototype is misnamed, since the first hour merits a four-star rating.
Bob (Wolk) is certainly an up-and-comer -- climbing the corporate ladder in a Texas oil company, and mar-ried to the beautiful daughter (Adrianne Palicki, "Friday Night Lights") of his imperious boss, Clint Thatcher (Jon Voight, this time around cast as a midday cowboy).
Those weekend sales trips, however, find Bob removing his wedding ring and cozying up to his live-in girlfriend (Eloise Mumford) and settling into an alternate life -- having sunk his hooks into the oil company as part of an elaborate con dreamt up with his father (David Keith), who admits his son has developed the art of deception to a level surpassing his own.
Still, it's a perilous existence, causing Bob to wonder: Could he possibly go legit, actually running the company, becoming a tycoon and settling down? And how long can he maintain the charade, especially with dad counseling him to strike fast and move on to the next flock of sheep just waiting to be fleeced?
Created by Kyle Killen and produced by "Party of Five's" Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman, "Lone Star" works as well as it does in large part by keeping an audience on edge regarding these questions -- and because Wolk manages to make Bob so appealing. As distasteful as his game is, you're half rooting for him to get away with it.
Keith and Voight are also formidable as the two father figures in Bob's life, establishing this as a series for grownups, without pandering to younger demos.
The catch, if there is one, will be how "Lone Star" handles the matter of juggling Bob's parallel lives and the seemingly inevitable threat of orbital collisions with world-shattering consequences.
Those issues will be settled in weeks to come -- as will the question of whether the program can capitalize on its "House" lead-in in one of TV's most competitive timeslots, including NBC's most ambitious newcomer, "The Event."
For now, though, "Lone Star" can bask in the glow of having cleverly executed the first stage of its scheme -- one that throws open an array of possibilities as vast as the Texas plains.