If the poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, were with us today and casting about for a theme epic enough to engage his Milky Way–sized imagination, I am confident that he would settle on oil. Its origins among the dinosaurs and its million-year maturation; its eruption into worldly affairs; its life-giving, death-dealing power; its depletion and final exhaustion, and the shuddering of empires that would thereupon ensue . . . These things he would show forth in majestic verse, of the kind that tattoos itself upon the scrolls of immortality.
ACTUALITY: “Don’t put your finger nowhere you wouldn’t put your pecker!” cautions one driller.
Or maybe he’d just pour himself a cold one and watch truTV’s Black Gold, which premieres this Wednesday at 10 pm. Black Gold is brought to us by the producers of Discovery Channel’s magnificent Deadliest Catch, and their MO is, it’s clear, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Instead of three fishing boats scouring the Barents Sea for piscine booty, we have three drilling platforms thirstily breaking the West Texas crust in a race for oil. The hierarchy of the platform is near-identical to that of the fishing vessel, and the risks are similar: the wise old driller runs the rig, the roughnecks work it, and the “worms” or rookies get cursed at and hit in the head by whirling chains. “What in the bald-headed hell is going on out there?!” asks driller Wayne in Episode 2 upon noticing that the Texan flag is flying upside-down over his rig. “That’s a disgrace to the oilfield!” And as in Deadliest Catch, where empty nets and crab cages meant empty pockets, the brute economics of the situation are irrefutable: each rig costs $45,000 a day to run, so if the black gold is not punctually struck . . . “I love to gamble,” says one jolly Texan mogul/speculator, “and I can’t think of a better way to gamble than oil and gas!”
The roughnecks are husky gun lovers and barfighters, young gods of manual labor, but the drillers, in particular, are fascinating. Hollow-cheeked Gerald, missing a toe and a thumb, runs the ancient Longhorn rig with salty imprecations. “Don’t put your finger nowhere you wouldn’t put your pecker!” he cautions his crew. When a couple of improperly fastened lengths of pipe tumble out of their harnesses, Gerald observes that an accident like that can “kill everybody big enough to die.”
Gerald is respected, if not exactly loved. Over at the Big Dog rig, meanwhile, driller Tim is producing a small tragedy of alienated leadership. He forgets to shut off the pumps, and everyone gets sprayed. “That was a worm move,” he apologizes. “I had my head up my ass. I wormed out.” The men shake their heads. “Tim sometimes,” muses a roughneck, “he’s just sittin’ there like he’s watchin’ a video game.” What is going on inside this man? Celebrating his 31st birthday at a bar, Tim ingests too much Cuervo, does a slow, walrus-like dance, and then starts shouting. “THERE AIN’T NOBODY OUT THERE AT THAT MUHFUCKING RIG THAT CAN RUN THAT RIG AS GOOD AS ME!!” Easy, Tim, say his crew. Easy, easy.