'Lone Star' faces cancellation after one episode

Pilot drew dreadful ratings despite critical acclaim

Now 20th Century Fox can claim to have produced both a Death Star and a dead "Star."

That the Fox drama "Lone Star" is on death watch is no surprise after its disastrous debut Monday, the first night of the fall TV season.

But unlike most series that experience television's ultimate indignity -- cancellation after one episode -- "Star" isn't being ushered out of existence to schadenfreude-fueled peals of laughter in the industry.

That's because unlike most shows consigned to the one-and-done club, the "Star" pilot drew critical acclaim and stood out from the pack of new pilots for being different than the increasing glut of procedural hours.

"No one in TV should be happy about this," said one agent who reps a writer on "Star." "This is going to have a chilling effect on networks taking chances on anything but cookie-cutter shows."

Flameouts are a ho-hum occurrence in the TV world, but the demise of "Star" was dramatic enough to send shudders through an industry hoping it will be more an anomaly than an omen.

Though Fox declined comment, it's possible the network is delaying the announcement of a decision, perhaps waiting for the cover that will be provided today by its announcement of the "American Idol" judges.

That "Star" will be canceled is being treated in industry circles as fait accompli, a matter of when, not if. Tellingly, while most underwhelming TV debuts are often followed by entreaties from counter-spinning execs magnifying glimmers of hope in the ratings data -- "did you see that uptick in the last quarter-hour among women 25-34?" -- the back-channel phone calls from network and studio execs never came.

That's because the ratings for "Star" were so bad that there was no silver lining to find on this mushroom cloud. The 4.1 million total viewers who showed up was a shockingly low number, especially given it had a strong lead-in from the season premiere of "House," from which its audience tumbled 68%. "Those are Friday night numbers on a Monday night premiere," said Brad Adgate, a veteran TV analyst with Horizon Media. "That's a nice cable audience."

Rejection came swift if the quarter-hour numbers are any indication. The final quarter-hour of "House" notched an audience of 11.5 million, which scattered instantly; by 9:15, the viewership had more than halved to 5.1 million, and successive drops registered until 3.3 million by "Star's" final quarter-hour.

The free-fall undoubtedly has a lot to do with how competitive the Monday 9 p.m. slot was, between the second hour of the season premiere of "Dancing With the Stars," the season premiere of "Two and a Half Men" and "Monday Night Football" on ESPN. But that didn't impact another series premiere at 9 p.m., NBC's "The Event," which was clearly the preferred new flavor of the night.

That another new show could thrive in such a tough climate means there may be more to the implosion of "Star." For one thing, the very attributes that drew raves from reviewers -- Metacritic scored it at a healthy 73 -- might have repelled viewers.

A chronicle of a con man juggling two unwitting women, "Star" may have been hurt by its very originality, the way it didn't fit the usual molds in which hourlong dramas come.

With its Texas setting, handsome cast and corporate intrigue, Fox seemed to be selling it as something of a "Dallas" for the 21st century. But that might not have been a reference point that resonated with viewers or it may have confused those who tuned in to find it was something more nuanced than a sopa opera.

While unknown "Star" lead actor James Wolk was hailed by some as nothing short of the second coming of George Clooney, it may have been the unfamiliarity of his face that hurt the show in a season where the more recognizable mugs of Jimmy Smits and Michael Chiklis are among the more marketing-friendly names.

The fact that "Star" is a serialized drama, as opposed to the standalone dramas of a procedural, may not be so much a factor because it doesn't seem the audience gave it enough time to even gauge what stripe of show it is.

But Adgate says Fox probably knew the risk when it comes to the serialized shows. "A program like this is either going to be a huge hit or land with a resounding thud," he said. "There's usually no in-between."

Even in an industry where programming patience is a perennial subject, there is something jarring about the one-episode cancellation. It's not rare, but not common either; the last instances came in 2008 with unscripted series "Secret Talents of the Stars" (CBS) and "Anchorwoman" (Fox). The last scripted instance was the 2006 ABC sitcom "Emily's Reasons Why Not." Even Steven Bochco has one to his credit, 1996's "Public Morals," as does one of Hollywood's lesser acclaimed thespians, NFL washout Brian Bosworth, with Fox's 1997 action series "Lawless."

If there will be a stay of execution on "Star," mercy will have to come from the soul of Fox programming chief Kevin Reilly, who made "Star" a pet project insiders say he fussed over until its completion. Known for his creative acumen and a willingness to make unconventional choices, he was no doubt second-guessing himself Tuesday morning. What will likely weigh heavily on his decision is the quality of the four episodes already in the can.

Fox could be waiting on a few other factors before making a decision. DVR ratings could provide an healthy uptick, especially on a night where plenty of TiVos were whirring amid so many choices. In addition, fan appreciation is a consideration, though no candlelight vigils were scheduled and the URL SaveLoneStar.com is still available.

Rather than permanently pull it from the schedule, Fox also could elect to move it to a different night once it has seen how its other new entries perform. Or, there's the option of putting it in deep freeze for an eventual relaunch, perhaps with the mother of all lead-ins in its corner: "American Idol," which was crucial to other Fox launches like "Glee." A more ignominious fate: getting its episodes burned off in the dog days of summer or December, or -- gulp -- on Hulu.

Fox could even make the masochistic move of just keeping it where it is in hopes of carving out a cult following.

But while it's not unprecedented to survive a bungled bow, Adgate says the sheer horror of "Star's" numbers likely means the network won't see this show get off the canvas.

"This was the show they were hanging their hat on," Adgate said. "Now they're just hanging their head."