This past weekend, SeriesFest: Season One premiered over twenty-five independent pilots. In addition, a number of big networks showcased a selection of their upcoming pilots and episodes…
Quantico fulfills every provision in your standard ‘make-the-sponsors-happy’ ABC show contract – a.k.a. a cast of pretty late ‘twenty somethings’ in sheeny bright no-contrast lighting mull about solving some overarching mystery whilst fending off/dealing with their own personal demons. Like How to Get Away with Murder except instead of a prestigious law university, it’s an FBI training ground. Or like Grey’s Anatomy except instead of doctors-in-training, it’s FBI-agents-in-training. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a reason there’s an ABC-mandated formula and Quantico may well be this factory’s greatest output yet. It’s ridiculous, arch and silly – but by golly is it fun. It’s the ABC formula rubbing its own nose in your face and you coming to the conclusion, despite all your misgivings, that you sort of like it. It’s a show trained to be a hit – to reach any demographic conceivable; and the shameless (and successful) boldness in which it caters to these four-quadrants is something of a marvel.
Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra (the show’s greatest asset) stars as Alex Parish, a ‘head-strong-but-troubled’ new recruit to Quantico. She’s introduced alla Meredith Grey, sleeping with some mysterious hunk (Jake McLaughlin) and ditching him the moment after – only to realize later that he too is a recruit at Quantico. Besides the hunk and the damaged goods, there are fifty other trainees competing for a limited number of agent slots – lending the show an Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians vibe, as the field of applicants is winnowed down one-by-one. This alone would probably be enough plot for a series – but the show quickly flash-forwards nine months to some devastating terrorist attack in New York. The rub: one of these fifty FBI recruits is responsible for the attack.
But who done it? Could it be Johanna Braddy as the icy rich one harboring weighty emotional baggage? Or Tate Ellington as the nice, friendly one who, of course is the most duplicitous of the bunch? Or perhaps Graham Rogers as the handsome golden boy trying desperately to live up to his own image? Or maybe Yasmine Al Massri as the devout Muslim (i.e. – the red herring)?
The pilot splits back and forth between the aftermath of the bombing and the first few days of training at Quantico. There are layers upon layers of twists built into the plot, not five minutes go by without a newfound revelation. It’ll be interesting going forward if the show can keep up this relentless sense of momentum. It’s a sledgehammer like approach to story, leveling you with pretty faces, secrets, lies, murder, car-crashes, gunshots, one-liners, pretty faces, secrets, lies, murder, car-crashes, gunshots, one-liners, pretty faces, secrets, lies – repeat ad infinitum.
Airing right before Quantico, Blood & Oil, almost out of spite, bucks against these sponsor-happy conventions. Shot in the mud, rain and grime of Utah (doubling here as North Dakota) there’s no ABC-mandated sheen to be found. The pretty late twenty something faces are all caked in dirt, blood and oil. There’s a real sense of place and atmosphere typically lost on network television. Sure I overheard a native North Dakota woman complaining about the inaccuracies of the show’s depiction; but a semblance of place (legitimate or not) is far better than a bunch of bland interchangeable interiors and classrooms.
The show’s a weird fit for ABC, whose model in recent years has been defined by the ‘Shonda Rhimes’ strong-but-emotionally-damaged-female-led-high-concept-soaps. See Quantico for proof. The two headliners in Blood & Oil are both men – Gossip Girl’s Chase Crawford (much better than you would think) and Miami Vice’s Don Johnson (as good as you would think). Crawford stars as Billy LeFever, an ambitious wannabe businessman searching desperately for that one big score before time passes him by. He borrows a stack of cash from his friends & family and hits the road with his wife Kelly (Rebecca Rittenhouse) to start a washer & dryer business. But after a chance mishap leaves his merchandise destroyed, the couple find themselves stranded in Williston, North Dakota – a big time oil town that boasts, “a millionaire is made every day.”
Serving as a mirror image, Don Johnson’s aptly named Hap Briggs is the epitome of everything Billy wishes to become – a self-made millionaire built from the ground up. But Hap faces his own set of challenges: his stock (oil) is slowly drying up and he needs to find new land to mine from quick. That these two men will cross paths in their pursuit of fortune is inevitable – and the crux of the pilot is waiting for the eventual to finally happen. This waiting can get somewhat tiring, truth-be-told, and it isn’t really until the last fifteen minutes of the pilot that things truly begin to kick off.
Blood & Oil is another attempt by a big four network to mimic the quality of a niche cable show (all the talk of land deals, indigenous populations & political minutiae brought to mind later seasons of Deadwood); but the show’s too broad to ever fully hit the quality metric to which it aspires, lying in a weird middle ground of just not quite good enough. There’s something here though – between Johnson’s magnetic charms, the rich location and the darker network aesthetics – it all suggest the potential for a show far greater than its pilot. Whether or not the show will have time to find its legs or will falter under the soapy tropes that have defined ABC remains to be seen. But as a pilot itself, it remains a curiosity – an ill-fitting square in a circular network hole.
Blood & Oil and Quantico air Sundays at 9PM and 10PM respectively on ABC. Both premiere September 27th