First episode impressions: ‘Blood Drive’ (TV review)

“Grindhouse” was among my favorite films of 2007 and “Machete” was my No. 1 movie three years later. Although I am almost totally ignorant of 1970s grindhouse cinema, those films were cheap, dirty, gory, ridiculous, lowest-common-denominator fun. But could such a purposely silly genre work as a TV show, artistically or commercially? Time will tell on the second point, but after one episode, “Blood Drive” (10 p.m. Eastern Wednesdays on SyFy) seems primed to go the distance.

The niche humor is present in the trailer, as we’re told “Blood Drive” takes place in the distant future of 1999, and the pilot episode’s title card tells us it’s set in the California Territories. With those proclamations, creator and episode writer James Roland brings to mind something like John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York” (1981), which is set in 1997 on a Manhattan Island that has detached from the mainland. The ’70s and ’80s gave us so many dystopian pictures set in the late 1990s that for geeks of a certain age, those fictional portrayals are more evocative than the actual turn of the millennium. Throw in episode promos patterned after old commercials for VHS movies, and the nostalgia is so strong with “Blood Drive” that “Stranger Things” would be envious.

The plot is the same as the short-lived 2007 Fox series “Drive” – drivers compete in an underground cross-country road race – except it’s not merely illegal, it’s totally unhinged. Since affordable gas is out of reach for most of the drivers, the cars run on human blood. That’s just one of many insanities about the storyline, so if you’re turned off now, “Blood Drive” isn’t for you. Following a great opening segment where Grace (Christina Ochoa) feeds a rapey guy into the grinding teeth of her engine, and then tops off the tank with the arm of his friend, Grace gets forcefully teamed up in the race with in-over-his-head cop Arthur (Alan Ritchson).

Typical of this genre’s style, Roland gives us back-of-the-napkin characterizations that make Grace and Arthur the heroes of this hero-less world. Grace needs the prize money to help her sister with a medical condition. Arthur is a good cop in a world where bad cops are not just the norm, but the foundation. Arthur turns his body camera off before helping a citizen, so his lieutenant doesn’t know he did it. The precinct must meet its weekly quota of teeth, smashed from the mouths of suspects; the lieutenant carries around a jar of teeth as proudly as that guy in “Planet Terror” cradled his jar of testicles.

Similar to the current thread on “Fear the Walking Dead,” the most common crime is water theft, and the legal punishment – executed on the spot — is death. The L.A. precinct’s motto is “We kill because we care.”

The theme is also a back-of-the-napkin sketch. Arthur learns that the Heart Corporation runs the Blood Drives, and as he flashes through his memories, he realizes pretty much ALL products are made by that corporation. (He spits out his beer, brewed and bottled by Heart, as the clincher.) He realizes that as an agent of the state, he can’t take down Heart, because Heart IS the state. It’s Fox Mulder’s worst nightmare on steroids. Still, “Blood Drive” is about corporatism the same way “Machete” is about Mexican immigration; don’t expect a nuanced analysis.

I’m not sure if every episode will be centered around a race (although I could find out, since teasers for all 13 episodes have been released). But the previews for episode two suggest the series will mix things up: Grace and Arthur get sidetracked in a town where cannibalism is the order of the day. I’m not sure how Arthur managed to be so ignorant of this world around him, but it seems he will serve as the audience surrogate.

One element of “Grindhouse” that has unfortunately been forgotten is the fake trailers that ran between “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof”; they have never been released on home video (although the fake “Machete” and “Hobo with a Shotgun” trailers later became actual movies). “Blood Drive” resurrects that sense of humor in the pilot with a commercial set in the world of “Blood Drive.” One grindhouse element absent from this show is the scratchy film stock and missing frames; the “Machete” films also went light on this conceit. It’s unfortunate corner-cutting, but not too bothersome.

It’s hard to imagine “Blood Drive” will be a runaway success in this age when there’s so much TV. I didn’t learn about it until my friend Shaune sent me a link to the trailer, whereas 15 years ago I would’ve known about every show on the tube just from following entertainment websites and magazines. In terms of quality, though, “Blood Drive” is already a winner.