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Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Culture | October 28th, 2015

Dear Marilyn,

I need advice.

When High Plains Reader asked me to write a review of ABC's “Blood and Oil,” I was prepared to skewer it. The primetime program seems designed for bloody, unadulterated evisceration, the kind of critical carnage saved only for the worst of the worst. The pieces all lined up. It is Don Johnson's comeback vehicle. It is ABC's answer to CBS's canceled “Dallas” reboot. It is ABC's answer to ABC's “Scandal.” We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering. The vivisection writes itself.

I'm stuck. How do I say something is just OK — not bad, but also not good either?

As one of North Dakota's beloved writers and as our most famous critic, you taught me a valuable lesson about criticism. If you don't have anything nice to say, say something — anything — about the drapery. I don't know why North Dakotans get so angry about Blood and Oil. I am not bothered by the mountainous landscape — it projects a western feel without seeming desolate and cold. FX's “Fargo” uses our landscape's brutal, cold emptiness to great thematic effect, which would feel at odds with the different kind of barbarity in “Blood and Oil”: manifest destiny.

Marilyn, the problem with “Blood and Oil” is that it's a lot like Olive Garden bread: filling, but unsatisfying.

Let's start with Hap "The Baron of the Bakken" Briggs, played by Don Johnson. His name is Hap Briggs, first of all. The only more obvious name for an oil tycoon than Hap Briggs would be Doyle Briggs, which rhymes with oil rigs. His son's name is Wick, not Derrick, as you'd expect. They have an awful father-son relationship, as you'd expect. Hap's married to a politically cunning wife who looks exactly like the politically cunning Claire Underwood from “House of Cards,” as you'd expect.

Billy LeFever, played by Chace Crawford, who you may mistake for Chris Pine or as the Gary Johnston puppet in “Team America,” shows up in the Bakken with laundry machines and a dream of becoming the the Laundromat Baron of the Bakken. His dreams and washing machines quickly end up on the side of road. Luckily for him, time seems compressed in Rock Springs, N.D. In the course of a few days Billy seems to lose everything, including his job as a "mud pusher," makes a million dollars scamming an old guy for land rights and finally loses everything again only to end up befriending the very same old man he originally hustled.

That's just the beginning of the well-worn TV tropes.

Marilyn, I binged watched the show with friends because I didn't think I could do it alone. Some of my friends fell asleep before the second episode ended. Like televised golf, “Blood and Oil” is background noise. One can fall asleep and wake up again without having missed much. Having stayed awake, I don't feel like I've lost anything, either.

The show is well photographed. The cast is attractive. The lines are hokey enough but not too hokey. The soundtrack is hip enough to include Zella Day, Elle King, Lil Jon and Major Lazer.

Don't you think it's funny how we North Dakotans demand accurate portrayal of modern prairie life whenever our home gets attention? It is our oddest and most annoying trait. We seem to love the limelight but hate the light it shines on our imperfections.

“Blood and Oil” got one thing right about us, Marilyn: We binge drink.

If anyone in the show drinks, take a drink. If Hap calls anyone "son," take a drink. If that person is not actually Hap's son, take another drink. If someone says Hap Briggs' full name to Hap Briggs, drink. If someone shoots a gun, drink. If someone is killed, drink. If someone is driving and there's an explosion or an accident, drink. If a sex scene cuts to a commercial break, drink. If anyone says "boom," "boomtown" or "booming," drink.

The West is wild not because of shootouts and heehawing drunkards; the West is wild because its silence is so deafening. Its vast land leaves you feeling small, humble, alone. You can sit on a Watford City porch on a hill facing west at sundown, witness to the most amazing sunset you'll ever see, silhouetted by distant derricks and hear nothing but your own breath. The West is wild because there's little to do but be prisoner to your own thoughts, to pass the time between long days pushing mud with booze and network television.

If you're going through hell, keep going. What of purgatory? If “Blood and Oil” is canceled, and it looks to be headed that way with three episodes cut by the network, there may be be little left to do in North Dakota on Sunday nights but drink.

Your fan,

Zac

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