Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pilot Reviews: Blood & Oil and Quantico

ABC's new Sunday night lineup is about as melodramatic as you would expect, considering the timeslots its two new shows, Blood & Oil and Quantico, have inherited: times formerly occupied by such shows as Desperate Housewives, Revenge, and Brothers & Sisters. There's no worries for fans of ABC's past soap successes on the night, as both shows, for better or worse, follow in the soapy, excessive footsteps of their predecessors.

Blood & Oil (Sundays at 9:00 on ABC)

First up is the contemporary Dallas knock-off Blood & Oil. It's a strange time to revive such an idea since Dallas itself was just modernized in 2012. That remake/sequel never really lit up the airwaves, but it managed to eke out three seasons and forty episodes over on TNT before disappearing with little fanfare (in fact, it's only most notable because original star Larry Hagman passed away while filming the series). Is America really clamoring for another family melodrama centered around the corruption of the oil industry? If the show is done well, why not? Blood & Oil may not be that show, though.

The show follows a young couple, Billy (Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford) and Cody (Red Band Society's Rebecca Rittenhouse), as they leave their friends and family to open a string of laundromats in Rock Springs, North Dakota, following a huge oil boom in the area, known as "The Bakken." Things don't go as planned, and before they even set foot in town, they are homeless and penniless. Billy gets a job "pushing mud" and Cody as a pharmacy tech, but both want more. So Billy takes it upon himself to get into the oil business, buying access to land that oil tycoon Hap Briggs (Don Johnson) will need to tap a lucrative natural resource.

The setup is long and slow, in contrast to nearly every other drama pilot this season, each of which starts with a bang. Blood & Oil doesn't even get its two leading men, Billy and Hap, to speak to each other until more than 3/4 of the way through. There's a lot of background established instead, including the introduction of Hap's hugely disappointing son, Wick (Once Upon a Time's Scott Michael Foster), and their strained relationship; a few scenes of Hap's wife (Revenge's Amber Valletta) asserting her control over the family finances; an unexpected pregnancy; the wheelings and dealings of one of the town's many loan sharks (India de Beaufort); and a whole lot of small, plodding scenes between Billy and Cody where they constantly question if they're doing the right thing by staying in North Dakota. I wouldn't mind any of this in a more captivating show, but Blood & Oil just feels like it's hitting beats. Josh Pate's pilot script shows the cogs as they move, shows each puzzle piece as it's moved into place. Obvious future plotlines will include a rivalry between Billy and Wick; a showdown between Hap and Wick; a potential takeover of the company by Carla Briggs; and the corruption Billy and Cody's newfound wealth (and connection to the Briggs family) will bring them.

It's all, essentially, a throwback to the kinds of primetime soaps of the 1970s and 1980s that Dallas and Dynasty made popular. Those shows paved the way for ones like Blood & Oil, but rather than pay them homage, this iteration is just redoing what they already did. Partnered with a wooden (though likable) cast, particularly from Crawford, who has not grown as an actor at all since Gossip Girl ended three years ago and is as bland but pretty as ever, and a formulaic script, there doesn't seem to be much reason for Blood & Oil to exist. Soap fans may find comfort in the familiarity and nostalgia, but everyone else will be left asking what and why we're watching this.

Quantico (Sundays at 10:00 on ABC)

Opposite in almost every way from it's lead-in, Quantico is also a ridiculous soap but with a ton of plot shoved into its pilot. An ensemble drama lead by Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra as Alex Parrish, Quantico follows a class of FBI agents-in-training at the famous but secretive Quantico academy. Flash forward months later, and one of Alex's classmates has committed the worst act of terrorism on American soil since 9/11.. and Alex is the agency's prime suspect.

The whole flashback/flashforward concept has been done to death as of late, most successfully probably over on ABC's biggest hit last season How to Get Away with Murder. It doesn't always work, but it creates a sense of urgency here. As we get to know each of the recruits, pieces of their individual puzzles fall into place and will provide clues to the perpetrator. It's a dense, overstuffed idea, if the pilot is any indication, but it's one that's thrilling and fun as well.

Like I said, there's a lot going on in Quantico's pilot. Not only does the story exist in two different timelines, there's a slew of characters with backstories that are already being established through the inventive (but exposition-heavy) idea that each recruit's first test is to find out a secret about another recruit in their first 24 hours together. It gives us a lot of information, but it also immediately establishes motives and sympathies for each character. Shelby (Johanna Braddy, unREAL) lost both of her parents in one of the planes used on 9/11. Simon (Tate Ellington) is a devout Jew who spent months living in Gaza with Palestinians. And then there's the pilot's most insane development with Eric (Brian J. Smith), a former Mormon missionary. In the first two-thirds of the pilot, we are lead to believe he will be one of the core cast members we follow throughout the series, but in this faux interrogation scene... he steals a gun and commits suicide over his own secret. It's a shocking, ballsy move on the writers' behalf, and one that ups the stakes of the show: no one is above suspicion, no one is safe. It's a great moment, the one which solidified Quantico as my favorite new show thus far in the season. There's a lot of plot going on, and it's happening at breakneck speed, but even in its first hour, the show is taking risks. I admire that.

I also admire the skill of this huge cast. Chopra is radiant in the lead. I really don't know how else to describe her performance and her presence: she's got "it." That "it" that you always hear about it (The It Girl, The It Factor, whatever) is obvious in Chopra. She's confident, gorgeous, and playful. Her entire body is alive on camera, from her eyes to her fingertips. Something about her just pulls you in, and that's one of Quantico's biggest strengths: with a less charismatic and relatable lead, the story would feel even more laughably ridiculous than it already does. Josh Hopkins (Cougar Town) and Jake McLaughlin (Believe) are intriguing, mysterious leading men, and McLaughlin especially plays wells off of Chopra. There's not a weak link in the cast (though the most absurd plot point is probably that twins are operating as one person; if the FBI knows about the time Simon lived in Gaza, they know you have a twin sister, Nimah).

All in all, I can't think of many negatives in the pilot. Maybe it's a little too plot-heavy, and characters could have developed organically rather than in a slew of info-dumping scenes, but when your pilot is as exciting and fast-paced as Quantico is, I just don't care.

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