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Know the West

Two oil-boom soap operas, then and now

How ‘Blood & Oil’ in today’s Bakken and ‘Dynasty’ in a 1980s Colorado match up.


When word got out a year or so ago that a nighttime television drama about the Bakken oil boom was in the works, there was reason to be optimistic. TV-land has changed a lot since the last oil boom dramas, Dallas and Dynasty, were on the air. 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. ABC’s Blood & Oil has about half of its first season under its belt and, well, it’s not exactly The Sopranos. It looks a lot more like its 1980s-era, Colorado-based predecessor, Dynasty.

There are eerie parallels between the two shows, including the overarching theme of upward mobility via oil. In Dynasty, Krystle Jennings, a secretary at a refinery, is set to marry Blake Carrington, Denver oil tycoon (and owner of said refinery) at the outset of the 1980s oil boom. Meanwhile, Blood & Oil’s Billy and Cody LeFever are headed to North Dakota to open up a laundromat in the oilfields and make it rich. After a pair of oil rigs run them and their washing machines off the road, the LeFevers team up with oil tycoon Hap Briggs. Both Jennings and the LeFevers are thus drawn into the dramas of the wealthy, imbued with sex, familial tension and violence (though, notably, no cocaine or meth).

In other words, both Blood & Oil and Dynasty are mere soap operas in a petroleum-soaked setting. Dynasty admirably taps into the Zeitgeist of the '80s, at least in the first episode. Carrington’s company is booted out of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, and there are several exchanges about the need for energy independence. Even Ralph Nader earns a mention. Carrington could be seen as a proxy for Ronald Reagan, who had just been elected president, and Carrington’s bright, sensitive son, Steven, as a stand-in for Jimmy Carter. “Why aren’t you out building windmills and turning Corn Flakes into gasahol?” Carrington says to Steven, bitingly, after Steven accuses his father of unethical business practices.

Blood & Oil, on the other hand, veers away from politics, except for when Darla, Briggs’ wife, manipulates the Mormon oil commissioner into handing over some secret U.S. Geological Survey report by promising him the governorship, and thus the power to approve an LDS temple right there in North Dakota.

We sat down and watched the first two episodes of each show, so you don’t have to. Here’s how they matched up.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News.