Monday, September 14, 2015

'Blood & Oil' Is A Fun, But Slightly Muddy Romp Through The American Dream

Blood & Oil, "Pilot"
Season premiere: September 27, 2015

I'll watch just about anything with Scott Michael Foster in it. 

I'm being completely honest, here. So when I saw that a screener was available for his new ABC series, Blood & Oil, I felt compelled to watch. Add Rebecca Rittenhouse (Red Band Society) and Chace Crawford (Gossip Girl) to the mix and yeah, sure, I set aside 40 minutes of my time to settle in for a pilot that I knew little to nothing about hours before. The series features Crawford and Rittenhouse as an adventurous, idealistic newly married couple who leave their friends and family behind and move to North Dakota in order to pursue wealth and the American Dream as entrepreneurs. Their luck takes turns sour, however, when they're in a car accident before they even reach their destination. And the accident leaves them without much of anything at all. As it turns out, Billy and Cody are not alone in their search for prosperity, as they soon discover. Rock Springs -- a town known for the largest oil discovery in recent history -- is booming with thousands of people who are searching for exactly what Billy and Cody are.

Of course, if there is a big oil boom, then there must be a tycoon to rule over it. And that tycoon is named Hap Briggs (played by Don Johnson). Hap is a man whose primary language is money, with a secondary degree in oil. He's the face, after all, of a billion-dollar company called Briggs Oil. He's a man whose wealth and power is owed to the work that he has put into his business, so he places very high value in working to achieve what you want. But that doesn't mean Briggs is a gentle, kind-hearted man with a clean soul and conscience. No, Briggs isn't afraid to manipulate people in order to maintain his status at the top. He may value the hard work that got him to where he is, but he also is perfectly okay with destroying other people in order to keep his success. And what would a tycoon like Hap Briggs be without a slacker son (played by the insanely typecast Scott Michael Foster)? Wick Briggs cares very little for his father because he's seen behind the facade -- he knows the kind of corruption and greed that his father isn't just capable of, but encourages. And though Wick wants everything to do with his father's money, he wants nothing to do with his father or the work that made him wealthy.

Scott Michael Foster is insanely good at playing the slacker heir to family fortune, so I can only assume that's why he keeps getting cast as these characters. But truly, there are a few moments in the pilot where the cracks in Wick's armor begin to show and where the audience can see that for all of his biting sarcasm and hurled insults, he's genuinely fearful of his father. That leads Wick to do some very questionable things, especially toward the end of the pilot. We see that greed is a strong theme in Blood & Oil, as is the concept of maintaining your status. Wick is cut off from his father during the episode and he doesn't handle that very well, instead deciding that the best way to get back at his father is to destroy the thing he loves most -- his empire. It's sad, of course, that Hap cares so little for his son, whom he essentially spits at and calls a disappointment in one scene (there's a moment where Wick is on the ground in mud and my heart broke a little for him because you could truly see how vulnerable and childlike he really was with his terrifying father looming over him). But that doesn't excuse Wick's actions at the end of the pilot and it doesn't make him a good or redeemable character -- simply an immoral one who has a shred of a soul.

Honestly, the thing I loved most about this pilot was something I didn't anticipate: Rebecca Rittenhouse's performance as Cody. I really enjoyed her on Red Band Society and Rittenhouse is an all-star in this first episode, with the kind of charisma as an actress that could cause just about anyone to fall in love with her. But Cody is a really well-written woman, too. Instead of waiting for her husband to help, financially, she gets a job as a pharmacist and stands up to misogynistic customers. She's sweet, but not compliant and that is what makes her such a compelling character. It would be easy to write her as a bit of a doormat -- as a young, naive, bright-eyed optimist who allows her husband to make decisions. Instead, she sacrifices a lot to ensure that both she and Billy can have the lives that they desired. I won't spoil it for you, but there's a moment toward the end of the pilot episode where Cody gives away something extremely valuable to another character as collateral because she believes in her husband and his vision for their future that much. This isn't blind optimism, though. It's faith that Billy is a good man and that, together, they can face anything.

Crawford's Billy is an endearing character, one driven by love and goodness than greed and power. He and Cody do something amazingly generous for friends of theirs in "The Bakken" (the boomtown of Rock Springs) whom they bonded with during their first few days there. So both Billy and Cody really are -- at their cores -- decent human beings and people who just want to follow their dreams, like everyone else. Billy, especially, is constantly reassuring Cody that he has a plan for them and will do whatever it takes to provide for their little family. But we see in this episode that Hap is more than willing to take Billy and Cody under his wings (and the wings of his wife Carla, played by Amber Valletta) and teach them how to become the kind of successful people they really want to be.

And so, unfortunately for Billy and Cody, not everyone in Rock Springs shares that sweet purity of heart and you can already tell that their lives will be tainted by money, power, and greed soon enough (especially after they get a taste of it near the end of the pilot). You can already tell that the pure don't stay pure for very long in this town and once one has a taste of what power and wealth can do for you and your circumstances (elevating you from struggling to make ends meet to having more than you could ever have dreamed of)... you're very nearly doomed to a life of moral ambiguity.

Blood & Oil isn't exactly my speed, storytelling-wise: it's more of a soap opera than a drama and you can see seeds of that being planted in the pilot episode with hook-ups and fights and explosions, both literally and metaphorically. The writing in the first episode was good, but it wasn't outstanding. While some twists were unexpected, the plot moved along essentially as I predicted it would. The characters, apart from Billy and Cody, are pretty much archetypes. So in a world full of pilots begging to be watched, the mark of a truly great one is if it hooks me and makes me feel like I NEED to watch more. Blood & Oil didn't do that for me, but it might do that for you. (As an aside, if you all watch this show and can guess what time in history we're supposed to be in, kindly let me know. It seems like present-day given some of the wardrobe and yet also in the past given other scenes? I don't know. I  have no idea what time period we are supposed to be in and it's the one, lingering question I've had after watching the pilot twice now.)

The episode ends on a cliffhanger, begging the audience to tune in for the next episode. If you're a fan of Chace Crawford (with a bit of a Southern drawl) or Scott Michael Foster (with the exact same snark and wit you're accustomed to seeing), you will definitely love Blood & Oil. And hey, if you like ABC for all of its other soapy dramas, this show is probably right up your alley.

Pilot Rating:

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