Syfy’s Blood Drive lives up to its grindhouse aspirations, offering plenty of over-the-top carnage that’s backed up by a handful of fun performances.
At first glance, Syfy’s Blood Drive seems less concerned about the story surrounding its blood-and-guts-centric, show-within-a-show setting than it is in maintaining its grindhouse atmosphere. Forget what you know about the plot; the cross-country death race in cars fueled by human blood, or the characters billed as the vixen, the cop, the psychopathic ringmaster, etc. These are just pieces of a delightfully trashy exhibition. The series’ primary concern is living up to the vibe it’s created, one that’s centered on a sort of nostalgia for the grindhouse subgenre and a love of tacky excess. Given the specificity of the advertisements released by Syfy, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to think that the creators of Blood Drive first thought up the marketing campaign and then worked their way backwards until they had a series to match.
The premiere, titled ‘The F…ing Cop’, introduces the premise of the show and the two leads, Smallville‘s Aquaman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ Raphael Alan Ritchson and Animal Kingdom‘s Christina Ochoa – who will also be appearing this fall on The CW’s military drama Valor. Ritchson plays Arthur Bailey, a good cop in the show’s post-apocalyptic 1999 who winds up entangled with Ochoa’s Grace, a murderous vixen competing in the death race that’s run by Colin Cunningham’s (Falling Skies) Slink, a black-toothed agent of chaos whose onscreen presence lands somewhere between Sid Haig and P.T. Barnum.
Cunningham provides the most over-the-top performance as the ringleader of the titular race. But as much as Blood Drive relishes Slink’s presence, the series relies on Ritchson and Ochoa to be the constants, as the show takes a semi-ironic tour through subgenres with each subsequent episode. Those who endeavor to stick it out for the long haul will likely get a kick out of the thematic references made on an episodic basis. At a certain point, the series throws everything from mutants to cannibals to zombies at its audience, in an effort to give them the most bang for their cable buck.
The premiere, though, is dedicated to getting Arthur and Grace into the titular race and to do just enough world-building to convince the audience there’s more to the series than an homage to Death Race 2000. Much of that is putting the two ostensible leads into a set circumstances they’re not in control of, thereby forcing their participation and partnership. There’s a sense that the series is doing some narrative gymnastics in order to get Arthur in the car with Grace, but whatever contortions the premiere assumes to underline what a “good cop” Arthur is, and just how far out of his element the Blood Drive may actually be, are a small price to pay for actually getting him on board with the main story by the end of the first hour.
‘The F…ing Cop’ is essentially the first leg of the race and a crash course for one half of the series’ main duo. Ritchson and Ochoa make for an alluring pair, with the latter doing most of the driving (literally and figuratively) in the first hour. And to their credit, both go all in with their roles, with not so much as a sideways glance or ironic wink at the camera. That’s no small feat considering the kind of deliberately ridiculous material they’re working with. Cunningham, on the other hand, has a little more freedom to embrace the cartoonish nature of the series and his character, who actually looks like a cartoon. Blood Drive seemingly splits the difference with an unexpected subplot involving Arthur’s partner Christopher (Thomas Dominique), who winds up on the wrong end of their investigation and falls victim to a pair of robots played by Marama Corlett. The result is an out-of-left-field twist that comes at just the right time.
The rest of the hour is an exploration of what viewers can expect for the next 12 weeks. Arthur and Grace have a run-in with three other racers – none of whom are all that interesting – and after some unexpectedly early car trouble, find a very Charlie Sheen/Kristy Swanson way of preventing the plot devices implanted at the start of the race from exploding in their heads. The potential payoff comes at the end of the hour, when Arthur comes to a realization of what it is he’s actually up against: a giant corporation with its hands in everything, including Slink’s Blood Drive.
What’s surprising about the premiere is how slick it is. Given its grindhouse allusions, you might have thought it would deliberately be a little rougher around the edges. Perhaps the addition of fabricated film scratches and the like was considered a step too far, and perhaps Blood Drive, for all that it is and isn’t, is better off without such flourishes. Either way, this grindhouse series is going to find its target audience just as easily as it deters those disinterested in its brash, cartoonish take on exploitation cinema.
Blood Drive continues next Wednesday with ‘Welcome to Pixie Swallow’ @10pm on Syfy