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'Lone Star' creator Kyle Killen calls Austin home

Dale Roe
Kyle Killen is creator of the new Fox series 'Lone Star,' a drama about an oil businessman who lives dual lives in Midland and Houston. Killen grew up in North Texas and now lives in Austin.

Kyle Killen lives in Austin but works in Los Angeles on a show that's set in Midland and Houston, but filmed in Dallas. So it's fitting that his first network television effort, Fox's new fall drama, "Lone Star," is about a man with a dual life.

The 34-year-old writer was born in Chicago but moved with his family to Burleson at the age of 3. He studied at the University of Southern California, where he "stayed long enough to get started," he says, and to meet some key people. But Killen got burned out on L.A. and returned to Texas. He has lived in Austin with his wife and three children for the past four years.

"I quit, but I never really quit," he says. "I took a lot of horrible, crazy jobs, but I always ended up writing about them or writing things that came out of them."

He found some success in short stories, one of which ultimately became "The Beaver," a screenplay about a suicidal toy manufacturer who begins communicating with his family via hand puppet. That script wound up on the 2008 Black List, which ranks the most popular unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.

Jim Carrey and Steve Carell were attached to the project early on, but the starring role eventually went to Mel Gibson. Director Jodie Foster completed the film in November 2009, but it sits in limbo, presumably due to the actor's public meltdown.

Still, "the sort of crazy success with that opened a lot of doors," Killen says. When it was suggested he work in television, Killen dreamed up "Lone Star" and bolted through one of those doors.

"Lone Star" executive producer Kerry Kohansky — serendipitously related to Killen's agent — suspected that the Midland oil scene might make an interesting setting. The pair scoped out the locale and returned to their respective homes thinking that the trip had been a bust. "But the more I stewed on it, it felt like that could be a part of something," Killen recalls.

Once the concept was nailed down, the meetings began.

"When you go out and you pitch shows, the truth is the things that you watch, the things that you love — ‘Breaking Bad' and ‘Mad Men' — they're dirty words in pitch meetings," says Killen, who eventually began pitching the show as " ‘Dallas' without the cheese." He explains that although those cable shows set benchmarks for quality, the number of viewers they attract would get a network show canceled. "(But) I think at Fox, it wasn't a dirty word. At Fox they felt like the only reason those shows aren't more popular is because they're not on Fox and because they don't have this machine."

I'm hoping the Fox machine is still being fine-tuned; the ratings for "Lone Star's" pilot episode were low. Really low. So low that there was talk that a second episode might never air. Against stiff competition from NBC's heavily hyped "The Event" and the returns of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" and CBS's inexplicably popular "Two and a Half Men," the show drew just over 4 million viewers ("DWtS," by comparison, drew over 21 million).

I feared that "Lone Star" would be a tough sell — it's built around a reluctant oil-country con man, played by newcomer James Wolk, who leads dual lives (with dual wives) in dusty Midland and high-stakes Houston. Therein lies the show's PR problem: "Lone Star" wants America to root for a morally challenged bigamist.

"We're asking you to buy what he believes, which is that he is actually in love with both of these women," the writer says. "And I think that's going to be a polarizing concept — something that people will definitely have a reaction to." Killen has admitted that he did not know whether that reaction would be positive or negative. But in order for it to be either, Fox has to get people to watch.

The writer is doing his part. On Thursday, Killen took the fight to his blog (thelettereleven.blogspot.com), in which he admitted that it will take "a miracle" to keep "Lone Star" on the air but asked the show's small fan base to help create that miracle by getting the word out.

"Monday night," he wrote, "STUNNING UPSET. Mark it."

Aside from viewers, the show's got everything it needs to succeed: a leading man with Kyle Chandler good looks and George Clooney charm; beautiful women (including Adrianne Palicki from "Friday Night Lights"); a deviously clever and original premise and the writing and acting — especially from Wolk, Jon Voight and David Keith — to back it up. And I'm not the only critic who has heaped praise on the show; it's at the top of many "best of the fall" lists.

Let's give "Lone Star" a Texas-sized rebound Monday night. Yes, it's dark. Like black gold.

'Lone Star': 8 p.m. Mondays, Fox