Judging ABC’s new nighttime soap Blood And Oil based on its pilot alone is an exercise with limited value, at least for anyone who’s been paying attention to the Hollywood trades. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Blood And Oil is part of an unusual fall TV trend—pre-premiere creative shakeups behind the scenes of network shows. Blood was created by Josh Pate, then turned over to showrunner Cynthia Cidre, but Cidre was replaced with Jon Harmon Feldman, formerly of Dirty Sexy Money, because ABC is “looking for more OMG moments à la Scandal.” Most shows would be ruined by a network’s push for immediate gratification over long-term story integrity, but the plan could work in favor of Blood, which doesn’t currently deliver on the title’s promise.
That isn’t to say the Blood And Oil pilot is bad, it just feels incredibly dated. The old-world feel is partly because Blood is a comeback vehicle for Don Johnson, who hasn’t top-lined a television show since Nash Bridges ended in 2001. But more than that, Blood feels excessively earnest, even in its best attempts to be trashy. The show is seasoned with bitchy quips and capitalist comeuppances, but its really just a show about a young couple—as idealistic as they are telegenic—doing their damnedest to live the American dream. The best possible execution of that show can’t live up to the title Blood And Oil, which sounds like the hilariously literal English translation of the title given to a Korean Dallas remake.
The youthful, pretty strivers are Billy LeFever (Chace Crawford) and his wife Cody (Rebecca Rittenhouse), who are literally derailed on their way to begin a new life in North Dakota, the epicenter of a modern-day oil boom. When their simple dream of opening a coin-operated laundromat hits a snag, Billy bets their future on a land deal that puts them in the crosshairs of folksy baron Hap Briggs (Don Johnson) and his sharp-elbowed wife Carla (Amber Valletta). In the LeFevers, Hap and Carla see younger versions of themselves, with the same manifest destiny mindset but without the cynicism that comes with age. Billy could very well be the next Hap, and it would delight Hap to mentor someone other than his entitled, ne’er-do-well son Wick (Scott Michael Foster).
There isn’t an OMG moment to be found in the pilot, unless you count the grateful reaction of the Nigerian couple (Keston John and Yaani King) when the LeFevers act as angel investors, pouring money into their dream of opening a restaurant. The heartwarming moment in which the LeFevers hand the Ezes a check to start their business is indicative of what Blood was apparently meant to be, which is a show that’s never quite as soapy as it ought to be. Valletta gets a few choice moments in which to show off the same aptitude for vixen fierceness she brought to Revenge, but only a few. The requisite sex scenes are neither tittilating nor illuminating, and they seem like efforts to scandalize what would otherwise be a family drama The WB would have been happy to pick up in 2005.
Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a poor fit for the title and for the network, which has typically programmed shock-heavy soaps like Desperate Housewives and Revenge. Blood is light on shocks, but it excels at building its characters and establishing a strong sense of place. The show depicts Williston, North Dakota as a land-locked shark tank that was once quiet and quaint until the oilfields attracted a sketchy, capitalist element. Cody is shocked to learn rental prices in Williston are not far off from what one would expect to pay in the trendiest sliver of outer-borough New York City, and her job at the local pharmacy gives her a unique look at the human toll of the prospecting business. Aching roustabouts line up for the pain medication they need to make their back-breaking work somewhat bearable.
Were this a different television era—say, the one in which Nash Bridges made it to six seasons—Blood would have made a strong addition to any network’s roster. In its current form, Blood is a throwback to a quainter time in primetime soap history, when a simple, well-told story of family intrigue was enough. That isn’t enough to tread water in the same world where Empire and Scandal attract unprecedented audiences. That doesn’t mean that Blood will be better when its new showrunner inevitably scales back such elements as the kindly Nigerian couple, but it will certainly be a different show, one more likely to survive in the current television climate. It’s at least fitting for a show called Blood And Oil to be bursting with potential that has yet to be tapped.