'Blood & Oil': TV Review

As slick as its titular substances. 

The oil fields of North Dakota provide the backdrop for ABC’s glossy, silly soap opera.

There’s a half-season’s worth of incident in the pilot episode (the only installment made available for review) of ABC’s Blood & Oil, which plays like the illegitimate offspring of Dallas and Deadwood — a modern Wild West story melded inelegantly with a trashy nighttime soap. Before the opening titles on the Josh Pate and Rodes Fishburne-created series have even appeared, eager young married couple Billy and Cody LeFever (Gossip Girl’s Chace Crawford and Red Band Society’s Rebecca Rittenhouse) have lost it all, their hopes of starting a coin-operated laundromat in the boomtown of Rock Springs, North Dakota, dashed in a roadside smashup.

The pickup is totaled, the uninsured laundry equipment destroyed and the duo’s unblemished faces end up lightly bruised (Crawford and Rittenhouse are the kind of performers on whom injuries seem like fashion accessories). But the loving couple’s ambition is unsullied, so one quick pep talk, a hike and a hitched ride later and they find themselves among the hardworking, and hard-playing, denizens of Rock Springs.

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The big boss man is Hap Briggs (Don Johnson, equal parts J.R. Ewing and Al Swearengen), who with his wife and business partner Carla (Amber Valetta) is buying up oil-fertile plots of land to mine for mucho moolah. Hap, of course, has a ne’er-do-well son named, of course, Wick (Scott Michael Foster), who falls disastrously from his father’s favor after he destroys a million-dollar piece of equipment. Biological son out, surrogate son in: Billy spends most of the pilot ingratiating himself with Hap (in a business-like manner) by wrangling together the cash to purchase a prime plot of earth. And by episode’s end, Hap is treating this bright-eyed, buff-chested interloper like the scion he wishes he had, leaving poor Wick with a bone to pick.

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To say all these character beats are rushed is like saying Speedy Gonzalez lives up to his name. Billy and Cody not only go from rags to million-dollar riches in the space of a week (43 minutes in network TV time). They also make fast friends with a tent city couple (Kess Eze and Yaani King) hoping to open a restaurant; get in hock to — and then out from under — bar-owning, bootylicious loan shark Jules Jackman (India de Beaufort); narrowly avoid death about three separate times (though there’s a doozy of a crude-igniting cliffhanger); buy, renovate and completely furnish an apartment that was in total disrepair earlier in the episode; and (can you believe it?!?) get pregnant. Kids these days work fast.

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Soap operatic machinations and narrative plausibility need not necessarily be bedfellows. But there’s little in Blood & Oil that compels in the way of the best trash TV. Crawford and Rittenhouse are uber-bland romantic leads. When they make PG-13 sweet love mid-episode, they resemble Ken and Barbie dolls being manipulated by the unseen hand of some hormonal teenager. Foster, meanwhile, overdoes the irritating petulance of his bad-seed act; he’s all central casting scowl and hipster goatee.

It’s up to the very pretty landscape photography (lots of mist-strewn and buffalo-bedecked vistas), as well as the old pros among the cast to pick up the slack. Johnson brings his usual rakish menace and charm (he’s one of the few reasons you could see returning each week). Delroy Lindo pops up for a too-brief scene as the town’s intimidating, and highly pro-alcohol, sheriff (he’ll hopefully get more to do as the series progresses). And veteran performer Barry Corbin — who memorably played Tommy Lee Jones’ wheelchair-bound uncle in No Country for Old Men — steals all his scenes as the crotchety rancher who hard-bargains with Billy for that valuable parcel of land.

Twitter: @keithuhlich

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