- Blood & Oil. ABC. Sunday, September 27, 9 p.m. EDT.
- Quantico. ABC. Sunday, September 27, 10 p.m. EDT.
- Grandfathered. Fox. Tuesday, September 29, 8 p.m. EDT.
- The Grinder. Fox. Tuesday, September 29, 8:30 p.m. EDT.
- Code Black. CBS. Wednesday, September 30, 10 p.m. EDT.
I found myself thinking the other day of Fallon Carrington, the gorgeous young oil heiress of Dynasty, one of the first big prime-time soaps. (Stop rattling the chains your parents have secured you to the basement walls with, overcaffeinated fanboys; I refer of course to the Fallon of the early seasons, played by Pamela Sue Martin, not the pallid Brit import Emma Samms, who took over the role in the waning years.)
Fallon, who also appeared in the Dynasty spinoff The Colbys, had about the worst luck of any TV character I can think of. When The Colbys' ratings fatally tanked in 1987, Fallon was abducted by a passing UFO in the final scene of the series finale to presumably spend a video eternity being anally probed by bug-eyed Venusian squishlings.
But then Dynasty producers decided they needed her after all, and, in the gloriously indifferent way of television, simply had Fallon turn up on the show one day without explanation, not even a sympathetic, "How's your butt feel?" from any of the 2,000 or so male characters with whom she had either slept or plotted murders. Two years later, she was trapped in the cave-in of an abandoned mine in a season finale cliff-hanger that turned permanent when ABC abruptly canceled Dynasty, too. I guess the oil industry really is bad karma.
This was all brought to mind while watching the pilot episode of ABC's Blood & Oil, a spiritual descendant of Dynasty that debuts on Sept. 27 as the fall broadcast season passes the midway point. None of the week's five new shows are exactly The Sopranos or the The Wire, but all in all they compare favorably with a few decades in a UFO proctology lab.
Blood & Oil is the most entertaining of the bunch. Set in the booming Bakken formation oil fields in North Dakota, it's like a frontier version of Dallas or Dynasty, without the glossy designer gowns and camp overplay.
Chace Crawford (Gossip Girl) and Rebecca Rittenhouse (Red Band Society) portray Billy and Cody Lefever, recently-married high school sweethearts headed to North Dakota from Florida with money borrowed from friends and family, aiming to make their fortune in the laundromat game. (You know how wildcatters love their fabric softener.)
But Rock Springs, the (fictional) little boomtown where they land, turns out to be a modern Deadwood, festooned with brawling honky-tonks and $2,000-a-month Grapes Of Wrath shacks. The place is awash in scams, hustles, general lawlessness, and freshly minted millionaires.
Though Billy and Cody lose their stake almost immediately, they stay on, captives of their newly acquired fever for rolling high, but well-served by unexpected talents for insider-trading and loan-pyramiding. They quickly brush up against a veteran power couple, wily Hap Briggs (Don Johnson) and his sultry wife Carla (Amber Valletta, Revenge), sharpies whose considerable fortune has been built on both natural cunning and a willingness to color outside the legal lines. You don't have to be a gypsy fortune-teller to see sly double-dealing, sexual combustion, and, eventually, tearful confessions to Dr. Phil ahead. I wouldn't even be surprised if a fracked-up Fallon Carrington comes clawing her way out of one of the wells.
The naifs-seduced-by-the-wild-side trope is hardly original, and Blood & Oil is, as they used to say in the Ivory Snow commercials, 99 and 44-one-hundreths pure soap. But cliches are so popular precisely because they're dramatically effective. The show is slickly produced by a pair of prime-time soap vets who know how the genre works: Josh Pate, who managed to turn the petty machinations of Texas schoolboy football into compelling drama with Friday Night Lights, and Cynthia Cidre, whose wildly underrated 2007 series Cane was a fascinating study of generational decay in a family of Cuban-American sugar barons. (She was also at the helm of the 2012-14 cable reboot of Dallas, which was popular with fans if not actual sentient human beings.)
They keep Blood & Oil living large without quite stumbling over the top. They get a lot of help from their skilled cast, particularly Crawford, who has grown some grit since his pretty-boy heir in Gossip Girl. And Johnson gives his best performance in years as the cagey, craggy Hap Briggs, capable of affection for a younger version of himself, but never letting it divert his eye from pursuit of the next buck. You won't even miss Tubbs.
If Blood & Oil is something of a happy surprise, Quantico is the reverse: a show that looks much better on paper than on the screen. The premise is irresistible: Among the new class of FBI recruits is a terrorist sleeper. But which one? Agatha Christie with Semtex! How could it go wrong?
And yet somehow Quantico somehow manages to do just that, or at least not go very right. The show's mechanics are all wrong; it starts with a shot of a ruined building, rubble and corpses scattered everywhere, then immediately flashes back nine months to the arrival of the new class of agents at the FBI academy in Virginia. Fair enough, but as each trainee is introduced, there are additional flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways in a dizzying progression that stops just short of Morlocks having a snack of Eloi tartare.
All that temporal dislocation is necessary because the recruits all have secrets of varying degrees of heinousness and conspiratoriality. That, too, is fine, at least in theory, but at the warp speed at which Quantico moves, it soon becomes hard to separate the pedophile from the patricidalist and the pseudo-Palestinian. Then there's all the boinking; the recruits, hardbodies all, mate like bunny rabbits or maybe Grey's Anatomy internists—the latter possibly more likely because that's where producer Mark Gordon learned his trade. Like Grey's Anatomy when it started out, the Quantico cast is mostly young and relatively unheralded, the latter condition likely to remain unless this show's metabolism can be significantly slowed.
If you want to watch a real hospital show rather than a false flag version, CBS is offering up a perfectly serviceable one in Code Black, with Marcia Gay Harden as a gunslinger-style chief (motto: "Sometimes you gotta be a cowboy!") of an overtaxed inner-city emergency room. Tragic deaths! Heart-warming saves! Amusing traumas befalling the socially marginal! A veritable symphony of crushed limbs, spurting arteries and simmering pus, with the occasional backseat Caesarian thrown in to keep things lively! In other words, just an average evening with ER, Chicago Hope or practically any other medical chop shop back to the days when Dr. Kildare rampaged through the corridors of Blair General, wielding his empathy like a broadsword.
The phrase "Code Black" is STAT-speak for an overflowing emergency room, which happens about five times a year at most hospitals and 300 times a year at this one, Obamacare be damned. The show, based on a 2013 documentary about a real Los Angeles ER trauma bay, rings with crisp dialogue and authoritatively shouted medical jargon in sufficient quantities that you'll never be more than halfway through an episode before you're completely immersed in hypochondriac terror of what your miscreant organs are plotting against you.
And it definitely represents an upturn for Harden, who won one Oscar (Pollock) and was nominated for another (Mystic River) but over the last couple of years seemed to have taken leave of her senses, working first in Aaron Sorkin's idiot journalism diatribe The Newsroom and then in the perv-for-dummies Fifty Shades of Grey. A season or two of coping with urban outbreaks of ebola and MERS should snap her right out of it.
If all this terrorism, pestilence, and refusal to recognize windmills as the solution to our national energy needs leaves you feeling a little bummed, Fox is unveiling two sitcoms this week. Grinder stars Rob Lowe as an actor in a popular lawyer show who decides to go back to the small town where he grew up and join the family law firm—even though he doesn't have a law degree, just a stack of old scripts. Legal merriment ensues, except on the part of his actual-attorney brother (Fred Savage, The Wonder Years), who stuck around all these years and kept the firm alive.
This may sound like slightly dotty piffle, but Grinder has its amusing moments, particularly in the way the celebrity-smitten townspeople unquestioningly accept TV stardom as a juridical credential, to the point that the judge allows Lowe to cite episodes of his shows as legal precedents. Can The Real Housewives of the Supreme Court be far behind?
The laughs are more frequent and frenetic in Grandfathered, in which oily celebrity restaurateur Jimmy Martino (TV veteran John Stamos, most recently of USA Network's Necessary Roughness) suddenly has one of his soulful pickup lines ("I'd give it all up just like that for a family!") put to the test: He learns that he has not only an adult son named Gerald (Josh Peck, The Mindy Project) but an infant granddaughter. He flunks, of course, but comes back for summer school.
Grandfathered is a well-crafted piece of work, with jokes coming in at all angles, from Jimmy's bafflement as he immerses himself in the details of new-baby domesticity (his look of horror as he finds himself drawn in to a boastful conversation about his granddaughter's prodigious bowel movements is truly immortal) to his dawning awareness that women really find him callous and caddish (an ex-girlfriend, dumping him because she was never allowed to keep even a toothbrush at his apartment: "You gave me gingivitis!")
But it's also a quietly touching story of emotional lost-and-found, with a cast of remarkable range. Both Stamos and Paget Brewster (Community), who plays the old girlfriend who thought so little of him that she never mentioned she had his child, can skip from punchlines to poignance without missing a beat. And then there's the uncredited baby who plays little Edie, the granddaughter, seemingly capable of producing rage, bewilderment, and a smug infant sense of superiority on command. Get an agent, honey! When the credits roll, your name should be above the title.