What TV Won't Tell You About the Wealth, Violence, and Boredom of North Dakota's Oilfields

<i>Blood and Oil</i> portrays the Bakken as boomtown soap opera, and the result is more boring than actual life there.

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Nov 4 2015, 4:52pm

Photo by Fred Hayes/courtesy of ABC

I ran into a friend at a wedding in Salt Lake City who had been scouting locations for the new TV show Blood and Oil, which is shot in and around Park City, Utah, the scenic home of the Sundance Film Festival. Blood and Oil is supposed to take place in western North Dakota, a region whose terrain is characterized by plainness, if not barren desolation, and has been disfigured in recent years by an oil boom. I asked my friend if it was difficult to find locations in one of the most beautiful parts of the country to film a show that's supposed to be set in one of the ugliest.

"Oh, no," he told me. "I initially left out all the photographs of sites that had mountains in them, since North Dakota has no mountains. But the director saw them anyway and said, 'These are great! The mountains are gorgeous! Who cares if North Dakota has no mountains! This is a fictional show!'"

Blood and Oil follows the fortunes of Billy and Cody Lefever (played by Chace Crawford and Rebecca Rittenhouse), a young couple from the Florida panhandle who borrow money from relatives to finance a small chain of Laundromats they plan to open in the boomtowns of the Bakken Oil Field. In case you hadn't heard, the Bakken—in real life—is an oil-rich underground rock formation where, beginning in 2006, new methods of drilling have allowed companies to extract unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels, spurring an all-out, old-fashioned oil boom in North Dakota. In the first scene of Blood and Oil, Billy and Cody are driving through "North Dakota"—in front of a sweeping vista of snow-capped mountains—on their way to humdrum financial mediocrity when they wreck their truck, destroying the (uninsured) washing machines they were hauling and, as a result, their plans for the immediate future. Determined to persevere, the couple tries their luck in the fictional boomtown of Rock Springs—presumably based on the real town of Williston, North Dakota—where, thanks to a highly improbably series of events, they fall into cahoots with the Bakken's biggest oil tycoon, Hap Briggs (played by Don Johnson).

Over the course of the first four episodes, Billy scrambles to become a player in the boom alongside Briggs, who initially seems to act as a mentor to Billy but then double-crosses him. Drama ensues, mostly involving Briggs's family—such as Briggs fucking his bratty son's smoking-hot girlfriend, Jules (played by India de Beaufort)—and each episode ends with a cliffhanger. In other words, Blood and Oil never pretends not to be a soap opera.

"You'd go to Walmart, and the shelves were empty," Cliff told me. "It was like Black Friday every day, for, like, some fucking toothpaste. They'd just roll shit out with a pallet jack and set it there and rip the Visqueen off of it and stand back."

A couple of my best childhood friends, Cliff and Brad (those are fake names), worked up in the Bakken. When I left home for college in 2001, they stuck around Wyoming and got jobs in the oilfield. This was the dawn of the modern age of fracking, and southwest Wyoming had just been thrust into a boom of its own. Both started out doing menial labor but worked their way into office jobs, and by 2010, when the Bakken had really gotten rolling, they were in management positions. As the boom in Wyoming died down and North Dakota exploded, the companies Cliff and Brad worked for decided they needed experienced managers up north. Both men sold their houses, packed up their families, and got shipped off to Williston.

"When you rolled into Williston, it was eerie," Cliff said. "There was train tankers as far as you could see, and campers everywhere. The roads were busy with traffic and schlummy-looking oilfield dudes everywhere in greasy fucking coveralls. They wear them everywhere. You go to the restaurant, everything's fucking dirty, man. Just disgusting. You'd have to wait in line for 45 minutes to get through the McDonald's drive-thru. You'd go to Walmart, and the shelves were empty—they didn't have enough supply to fill the shelves and they didn't have employees to actually put the shit on the shelves. It was like Black Friday every day, for, like, some fucking toothpaste. They'd just roll shit out with a pallet jack and set it there and rip the Visqueen off of it and stand back."

If this sounds like an improbable setting for a soap opera, it is. The appeal of "soaps"—such as Blood and Oil 's famous primetime predecessors Dallas and Dynasty, which depicted the glamorous affairs of oil families in the 80s—is that they offer viewers escape into characters' lives that are more attractive, exciting, and alluring than our own. I sat down to watch a few episodes of Blood and Oil with Cliff and Brad, who are both now back in Wyoming—the glut of oil that resulted from the balls-to-the-wall drilling in the Bakken helped raise the global supply of oil beyond the demand for it, driving prices down and killing the North Dakota boom. I wanted them to point out for me the incongruities between the show and reality that morphed the Bakken into a suitable fictional venue for dramatic fantasy.

This proved to be an exercise in the obvious. Instead of arriving in a town of tanker trains and greasy coveralls, Billy and Cody walk into a street party where people are hanging off the buildings. They enter a bar with attractive dancing ladies a la Coyote Ugly, and the bar's scintillating owner—who we're later introduced to as Jules—dishing out drinks. Brad said the crowded bar blaring rap music seemed pretty spot-on, but the similarities to what he saw in Williston ended there.

"There's more hot girls in this show than in the entire town of Williston," he said. "People up there would always say that there's a beautiful woman behind every tree... You know, because there's no trees."

Cliff said some of the bartenders looked kind of like Jules, "except a lot heavier, and with beards."

Whether or not fracking is evil, it's certainly banal. The best parts of Todd Melby's interactive documentary Black Gold Boom are specifically about how boring life is in the Bakken.

The show promptly whisks us out of the workingman's milieu where we might glimpse places like McDonald's and Walmart when Billy gets his hands on a million dollars in the first episode. From that point forth, we're in the world of Briggs and the Bakken's 1 Percent—prime territory, it would seem, for escapist soap-opera hijinks.

Except it isn't. Even a ritzy, fictional version of the Bakken with an attractive cast and picturesque mountains falls short of feeling enrapturing. In one of the show's many lukewarm reviews, Brian Moylan complains in the Guardian that while 80s-era oil-tycoon soaps like Dallas and Dynasty "were known for their luscious furs and glittering diamonds, the only luxury in Blood and Oil is Hap's private jet. He lives in a large but not ostentatious house, wears jeans and a cowboy hat, and drives around in a pickup truck." Moylan goes on: "It's even hard to buy that North Dakota is some kind of boomtown for the oil business. I know it actually is, but the way it's depicted in the show, the nightlife looks more like Mardi Gras with caribou or a sanitized version of Deadwood. Yes, there might be a lot of money, but if the money isn't translating into some sort of aspirational and heightened reality, it's just no fun."

The oil industry has historically done its business behind a veil, out of sight. This is partly due to the logistics of the business. Companies drill most wells and build pipelines in remote areas, and until the fracking boom major oil exploration has tended to take place offshore and outside the United States. Catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills have occasionally revealed the potential pitfalls of our country's oil lust, but the rise of fracking on US soil has raised awareness of what the process of extracting fossil fuels entails, and shown us just how messy that process is.

"Fracking means that the United States is producing more and more of the energy it consumes in its backyard," Wall Street Journal energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. "As of 2013, more than 15 million Americans lived within a mile of a well that had been fracked in the past few years. This new proximity between wells and homes is one of the defining features of the new energy landscape."

Debates over the environmental and economic impacts of fracking are often heated—in his public announcement that New York State would ban fracking, Governor Andrew Cuomo said it's probably the most emotionally charged issue he'd ever experienced, with people on both sides "passionate and emotional and scared, and they're not listening and they're not hearing and they're yelling." But other than excited individuals shouting their opinions, the ubiquitous media coverage of fracking has been... well, dull.

Even stylish, in-depth investigative productions like the New York Times Magazine 's three-part-series on the Bakken feel boring—albeit dread-inducing—despite telling complex tales of corruption and murder. But it's not the reporting's fault—it's the subject's. Whether or not fracking is evil, it's certainly banal. The best parts of Todd Melby's interactive documentary Black Gold Boom are specifically about how boring life is in the Bakken—at one point Melby hangs out with a couple young roughnecks roping a fake bull in a parking lot who tell him, "Wasting time is the only thing to do in North Dakota." Later, he interviews an oilfield worker who laments of his evenings off: "I've never seen so many movies with guys in my life. It's horrible." The oil industry looks nothing like Dallas. The boom in North Dakota has made people rich, like Harold Hamm the CEO of Continental Resources who pioneered drilling in the Bakken and is probably the closest real-world equivalent to Blood and Oil's Hap Briggs—but he looks more like Rip Torn than Don Johnson.

"There was an underground group of rich people that didn't mingle with the regular schlubs of society," Brad told me. "I seen their houses, I seen their Ferraris driving down the potholed streets of Williston. But I guarantee you Harold Hamm wasn't cruising around the Bakken banging broads and running the show. He was no center of gravity. He was no Don Johnson."

Perhaps Blood and Oil doesn't aspire to the ultra-glamour of Dallas and Dynasty because its creators didn't think its contemporary audience would buy such a depiction. It's hard to say. When Hap Briggs asks his daughter (played by Miranda Rae Mayo)—who's young and hip and raised in California rather than with Hap in North Dakota—if she's excited to sit in on her first Briggs Oil meeting, she replies, "Yes, pop. A Friday night of looking over earnings reports with old men in suits. It's a dream come true." So, the show's writers are at least somewhat aware that the oil business isn't actually sexy.

But if the show doesn't want to sell us a pulpy melodrama about powerful people in a glamorous industry (a la Empire), what is Blood and Oil good for? Last month in High Country News, Jonathan Thompson explains how he initially had high hopes for Blood and Oil, which were ultimately dashed: "Reality shows have us demanding more authenticity—or at least the illusion of it—from the tube, and critically acclaimed hits like Breaking Bad and Mad Men have raised the bar, quality-wise, as well. Would it be too much to hope for a Bakken Bad, Fracking Bad, or Land Men—a smart, well-acted exploration of the dark side of the oil boom? Apparently that would be too much to ask."

An alternate-universe version of Blood and Oil would grapple with topics like politics, climate change, and pollution, which are inherent to the oil industry, but also issues specific to a boom. For western North Dakota, such issues might include overburdened infrastructure resulting from thousands of people descending at once on small towns; radical spikes in drug use, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault; the highest rates of workplace deaths in the nation; skyrocketing rents and evictions; and the inevitable economic downturn that leaves thousands of people—many of whom have picked up and moved their lives—without jobs, often overextended by mortgages and car loans they took out after hearing assurances that the boom would last for decades.

A show like that could also portray the crippling social isolation many people feel trying to make a normal life in the absurd, awful conditions of a boomtown. Brad said his life in Williston felt like jail—nothing to do and nowhere to go. At least he had work. His coworker's wife was put on Prozac to cope with the tedium of sitting through North Dakota's long winters alone in a company trailer. Many roughnecks left their families back home, not wanting to subject them to boomtown life.

"There was one guy," Brad's wife, Nina, told me, "we didn't really know him, he just lived across the way. We were having a barbecue, the kids were already down there, and he came over completely drunk—like, bad, not really speaking real words. But one thing he said was, 'I just miss my family.' He scared the shit out of the kids, and he was forcefully made to leave. But the reason he came wandering over was because he missed his kids."

Blood and Oil contains no such commentary on the ailments caused by the oil boom. But it might be more "authentic" than Thompson gives it credit. After all, it's an unexciting show in a dreary place populated by characters who are motivated solely by money. If that's not—at least in broad terms—an accurate depiction of the Bakken, I don't know what is.

Follow Nathan C. Martin on Twitter.

Blood and Oil airs on Sundays at 9 PM EST on ABC.

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