From its description alone, Discovery’s “Blood and Oil” (premiering Tuesday night) sounds like welcome relief from the usual jagged landscape of manly reality shows, simply because it’s not set in Alaska, where viewers have wearied of watching get-rich-quick schemes devolve in get-poorer-slower sagas of self-absorbed guys with gold fever.
“Blood and Oil” instead turns its attentions to the energy boom in the Lower 48. Domestic oil production recently topped 7 million barrels a day, the highest it’s been in 20 years, and so, in rural northeastern Ohio, we are introduced to the Cutter family, which is trying to revive its oil business (125 wells or so) and compete with an apparently rapacious array of corporate oil interests that are drilling all around them.
Within seconds of its first episode, it’s clear that “Blood and Oil” is a dry hole — and whatever other oil puns you’d like to add, including the obvious crude. The real energy source being explored here is the potential richness found in exhibitionism. In a genre in which a family of goobers who make duck calls can usurp the Kardashian clan’s supremacy, who can blame the Cutters for trying their luck as TV stars?
But this is one of those occasions when a viewer can tell that what actually happened was clearly not enough to appease the basic demands of a docu-series. (At one point, a wrench is tossed from one man to another and arcs in slow motion — that’s how bored the editor got.) You can almost hear the family begging the producers to stick around, promising to juice things up for the camera. (Please stay. I’ll get my gun and shoot at some junk scavengers!)
Taking the lead here is oldest son CJ, a blustery cuss who wants to restore some lost glory to the oil business founded by his recently deceased father. CJ’s mother, Beth, is technically the head of the company but seems indifferent to it. There’s a younger brother, Josh, at whom CJ is fond of yelling. When their petty arguing comes to blows, the men retreat to a grain silo on the family farm, where they wrassle it out. There’s a sister, Kristin, who pitches a fit when CJ decides to dig an exploratory well in the flower bed behind her tacky starter mansion.
“Blood and Oil” feels entirely concocted and embarrassingly shabby, resulting in a form of emotional pornography; no one in the family — particularly the hotheaded CJ — is a good enough actor to overcome all the obvious scripting. The arrival of some Appalachian wildcatters-for-hire, whose authenticity and work ethic put the Cutters’ TV charade to shame, makes me think that there would certainly be potential in a better-made series about the new American oil boom. Why not head for North Dakota, where everyone’s living in motels and cashing in?
“You think I’m done?” CJ growls angrily to the camera. “I’m just gettin’ sta— ”
OWN’s Lisa Ling, meanwhile, continues her noble and frequently illuminating trips across the country to root out stories about citizens who find themselves on the usual margins of lifestyle or happenstance, but I sometimes worry that her series, “Our America,” is itself an exercise in obscurity. It’s one of those rare docu-series that has a genuine ability to be quiet and open-minded, even at the risk of boring some viewers.
On Thursday night’s episode, “God and Gays,” Ling returns to the threadbare debate over the “ex-gay” movement, a Christian ministry that for decades claimed to fix homosexuality with conversion (or “reparative”) therapy. It’s an old story with a new twist: Ling has been summoned by one of her former profile subjects, Exodus International leader Alan Chambers, who would like her to facilitate a meeting with gay men and lesbians who endured reparative therapy, mostly with disastrous results. Chambers wants to apologize and tell them that Exodus is getting out of the cure-all business.
So here they sit, in a depressing, drop-panel-ceiling basement of the Hollywood Lutheran Church. The men and women share their stories of encounters with the “pray-the-gay-away” crowd and the psychological burdens that came with it. Exodus’s original founder, Michael Bussee, who left the organization (and the closet) ages ago to live somewhat happily ever after, is also here, mostly to give Chambers the what-for.
Reading nervously from a rambling, prepared text, Chambers tells the group that Exodus will go on, minus its core mission of reparative therapy. One woman says she must have missed something in what he said. “What is Exodus now?” she asks.
“We’re a Christian ministry. . . .” Chambers begins. (“That does what, now?” a man in the group asks.)
“Don’t tweak it, don’t try to ‘improve’ it,” Bussee tells Chambers, his anger rising. “Shut it down.”
Chambers, who spent half his life preaching about how he overcame homosexuality, talks about grace and forgiveness. Ling asks about how he now defines his own sexuality.
“Am I straight?” Chambers asks rhetorically. “I’m Alan. I’m a Christian. I love Jesus. I’m crazy about my wife. I’m a dad. I’m a neighbor. I’m a gardner — I decorate so well.”
In terms of catharsis, the meeting is mostly a letdown for all involved. Ling correctly notes that the goodwill in the room emanates from a willingness to forgive, but also from a sense of fatigue.
That’s what I felt, watching it: utter fatigue. Old arguments are falling apart; momentum toward equal rights has taken over. And yet pretty much anything you see on television — still — about gays and lesbians has the feel of that dark church basement and the circle of folding chairs. TV still mostly focuses on gay oppression, struggles, anger, sadness, teen suicide and sad memories; the only counterbalances to that are drag queen showdowns, real-estate agent catfights and Michael Douglas vamping about as a tragic Liberace. You’ll know things have really changed when someone besides Logo gets around to making a reality series about gay people just having some unencumbered fun.
(one hour) premieres Tuesday
at 10 p.m. on Discovery.
(one hour) airs Thursday
at 10 p.m. on OWN.