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Boobs, blood, and blowing shit up: Blood Drive and the challenge for exploitation TV

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Christina Ochoa in Blood Drive (Photo: Syfy)
Christina Ochoa in Blood Drive (Photo: Syfy)
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Blood Drive

Season 1

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Like most forms of pop culture, the vast majority of exploitation movies aren’t great. But for fans, a lot of the fun comes from reveling in the more disreputable aspects of the films, thereby negating some of the critical metrics by which cinema is usually evaluated. Shallow and intellectually unrewarding? Bring it on! Paper-thin characters only there for visual titillation? The more, the merrier! Needless explosions? Even during the love scenes, we hope. You don’t have to read a dissertation on “the subversive interrogations of normative ideologies by John Waters” in order to have a great time seeing Female Trouble.

But a big part of that appeal is the brevity. Like any rich and unhealthy dessert, it tends to be better in small doses—too many helpings of triple-layer cake, and you make yourself sick, or at least it starts to be less appetizing. (Try watching more than a few nunsploitation flicks in a row, say, and you’ll likely soon be pining for the relatively oblique fun of an Antonioni joint.)

Into that realm now steps a new generation of TV, programming explicitly steeped in not just the habits of exploitation, but the aesthetics and marketing of the historical genre we now identify with a variety of labels: grindhouse, pulp, shock, and so on. TV has trafficked in the content of exploitation for a long time—everything from old-school HBO programming like Red Shoe Diaries to arguably the entirety of the Lifetime movie catalog fits the bill—but in recent years, shows have attempted to mimic the trashy, bottom-denominator-trawling world of midnight drive-ins. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double-bill Grindhouse project briefly created a new wave of self-consciously lowbrow and low-budget movies, as a generation of filmmakers realized the slapdash fun of orchestrating either homages or outright parodies of the grindhouse films of old. So it’s unsurprising that, as “peak TV” finds ever-more avenues to create (relatively) inexpensive television, the trend would move to the small screen.

Syfy’s new series Blood Drive is notable for a number of reasons, but its most valuable asset may be its ability to stand as the avatar for any and all attempts to bring self-aware grindhouse aesthetics to TV, primarily by trying to do all of them at once. Carsploitation, sexploitation, hicksploitation—you name it, and there’s probably an episode of Blood Drive that does it. It’s not very good television, but that’s the ready-made retort to any critical assessment of the show: It’s “not trying to be.” The show takes the hoary defense of any guilty pleasure or show of subpar quality—“It’s just fun, it’s not trying to be art, stop criticizing it”—and raises it to a mission statement. We know we’re trash, the series proudly declaims in its critic-proof stance, so anything that’s bad is intentional.

But no matter how hard the retro grindhouse aesthetic tries, it will never be able to fully subsume complaints about good filmmaking and good storytelling. Gonzo plot elements don’t evacuate the need for compelling narratives, any more than over-the-top characters obviate the appeal of thoughtful writing. It’s the difference between Machete Kills and Mad Max: Fury Road. But even as bargain-basement Troma movies revel in outright trash, and the juvenile appeal can be infectious, there’s a limit to the benefits. These stories are often barely coherent, and viewers go along for the ride because of the exploitation elements. But just as those start to get tiring, the movie’s over. Exploitation TV has different requirements.

Unless you’re Ryan Murphy, serialized TV shows require clear, relatable characters who evolve and change as they go through experiences. It needs sharply articulated plots, with understandable stakes and coherent storytelling. And most of all, it needs to give you a reason to keep coming back week after week—which is to say, you need to be invested in the people and their predicament. Modern gonzo films like the Crank series can avoid this because there’s a ticking-clock element; the audience knows they have a limited time, so it becomes an adrenaline-laced exercise in can you top this?, something those films share with bad-taste-courting indies like The Greasy Strangler. TV shows don’t get any such leeway. If an episode doesn’t convey the promise of newer and richer developments the following week, there’s no incentive to return.

To its credit, Blood Drive instantly realizes the problem on its hands, and begins working overtime to throw as many mysteries and genre puzzles at you as it can. Because once the degree of sleaze and salaciousness contained in the series has been revealed, what remains is awfully thin gruel: One-note characters and an increasingly ridiculous premise. The setup, such as it is, involves the near-future year of 1999 (just go with it—it mostly seems to be an excuse to have a world without smartphones) in which gasoline is a rare commodity, and fracking has led to devastating earthquakes that tore up the U.S. and created a barely there society, one steadily transforming into a Mad Max-esque land of lawlessness. Police forces are privatized, new drugs have decimated the populace, and cities are decaying. So far, so derivative.

Alan Ritchson in Blood Drive (Photo: Syfy)

Into this rehash of genre tropes comes a boy scout of a cop (Alan Ritchson), who unwittingly discovers the existence of Blood Drive, a secret underground racing competition, and is coerced into teaming up with a young woman (Christina Ochoa) and forced to race against a dozen-plus competitors. Each night, the last to arrive at the day’s destination is eliminated—literally, as each racer has an explosive device implanted in their neck. The carnival-esque atmosphere of sex, drugs, and steampunk-meets-rockabilly costuming that permeates the Drive and its followers (it has a Grateful Dead-like assemblage of freaks who travel in tandem with it) is overseen by a cartoonish master of ceremonies (Falling Skies’ Colin Cunningham), tasked with boosting the appeal of the race for its unseen audience, viewing the events via cameras nearly everywhere both inside and out of the cars.

Like Z Nation, another show that embraced its low-grade inspirations, each episode provides a new journey to some bizarre new location and cast of wacky characters, providing a mission-of-the-week structure to the series. But unlike that series, which decided it needed to actually start developing its characters and providing deeper shades to them, there’s almost nothing about the personalities in Blood Drive that change between the first episode and the last one of the season. Ritchson, a terrifically gifted comic actor, is stuck here in thankless straight man territory, dutifully fulfilling the role of noble-hearted beefcake (named Arthur Bailey and nicknamed “Barbie” for his Ken-doll looks) with only the faintest of nods to any depth. Ochoa gets more levels to play as Grace D’Argento, which is to say two—sassy bad girl and wounded good one. And poor Cunningham, who was presumably hired after his role in Falling Skies proved he had star-level charisma to burn, is turned into Julian Slink, a cartoonish goth-metal carnival barker, a role in which he’s obviously been exhorted to indulge in the most hammy and scenery-chewing choices possible.

Rather than turning to its characters to provide a reason to tune in, the show throws every absurdist and titillating trick it can think of at the viewer, hoping one of them will jolt the senses enough each week to return for a fix of more. There’s a nefarious corporation behind everything, pulling the strings—one that Ritchson’s cop has sworn to bring down. His law-and-order partner (Thomas Dominique) is kidnapped by an AI robot (Marama Corlett) in the first episode, and spends the season transforming into a cyborg in a variety of gratuitously sexual ways that aren’t worthy of unpacking. The fusion of science fiction and magical realism beggars belief in ways both fun and not, as the unceasing parade of grotesqueries, bargain-bin CGI, sex and nudity, and swearing gets tiresome as often as it evokes a garish glee. It’s the kind of show where you find yourself saying things like, “The serial killers who missed the sex-orgy virus really didn’t contribute much to the story, but they did avoid the massive sprays of semen, I guess.” Perhaps this is a good place to mention the racing cars all run on human blood?

In all these garish ways, it’s fundamentally a show made for Insane Clown Posse fans, with a few sops here and there to White Zombie devotees, too. Which is to say, there’s a certain kick to the go-for-broke idiocy that occasionally comes to the fore, usually when an episode has a talented director on board. James Roday delivers a superior pair of installments, nailing the show’s attempt at black humor with his breezy pacing and refusal to nudge the viewer between the proverbial ribs after every corny line. And when Ritchson gets chances to goof off or do anything beyond deliver exposition and keep his chin up, the show hints at a future where it might care about the characters as much as it does delivering faux-shocking material. In these moments, the freewheeling sense of fun supersedes the sense that Blood Drive wants you to be oh so outraged by its antics, as though the 2017 Syfy audience were composed of hand-wringing Focus On The Family editorialists.

If grindhouse TV wants to thrive in the medium, it needs to put its shocks and flesh in service of something more than a game of perpetual provocation and one-upmanship. It needs to locate the characters and arcs that drive serialized shows, and make them compelling for the long haul. It needs to become television, in other words. And while it would be easy to say that when you take away the skimpy outfits, gratuitous sex and violence, and outrageous plot twists, there’s not much left, the typical exploitation response—that’s kind of the point—doesn’t hold much sway in a medium predicated upon a reason to come back. We can get our shock value anywhere these days. Take advice from Boogie Nights, Blood Drive, and craft a reason to keep people in their seats after their, um, proclivities have been satisfied.


Created by: James Roland
Starring: Alan Ritchson, Christina Ochoa, Thomas Dominique, Colin Cunningham, Marama Corlett

Debuts: Wednesday, June 14 at 10 p.m. Eastern on Syfy
Format: Hour-long miasma of exploitation tropes
Thirteen episodes watched for review