The time-traveling, Synchronic-esque freshman series has a lot of elements a series like this needs. The initial sinkhole into a La Brea Tar Pits warp hole is a cool idea. Anyone who has been to the attraction knows there is an element of creepiness to being that close to the death of massive prehistoric creatures. Show creator David Appelbaum doesn’t let too much analytical thought get in the way of the Hidden Earth potential. He’s smart about what he focuses on, choosing to let his cast do most of the heavy lifting until everything else can get sorted out. Lost did the same thing, and that was obviously a solid game plan. Having worked as a co-producer and writer on The Mentalist, Appelbaum knows quality character development.
NBC’s latest attempt at a sci-fi mystery box is by no means Lost. It wants to be, really badly. There are drug dealers with actual trunk-loads of heroin that might have hearts of gold(not so far though), a ragtag group of people thrown together in a world they aren’t equipped to navigate or even imagine, and even an entire contingent of “Others” who aggressively defend their turf. For all the similarities, there have been plenty of notable criticisms. The effects are not great. At times they are even laughable, and there has been way too much talk and not enough action. There is a way to make dialogue tense. La Brea hasn’t quite mastered the nuance yet. There has also been fair criticism lobbed that too many secrets have been given away too early.
I agree. It would have been better if La Brea was a little more Bermuda Triangle weirdness and less rip in the space-time continuum that our government has known about for years. For all those complaints, the last few episodes have improved dramatically, and La Brea has found its footing. That surge forward was enough for executives to greenlight a surprising season two pick-up. La Brea has always had a few things going for it. Unfortunately, in the first couple of episodes, Natalie Zea’s shine and the intriguing storyline got muddied by weird effects and trite plot beats. Against all odds, the network that loves to kill genre shows doubled down. For all those wondering why Debris got canceled, but La Brea gets a second look, here’s an explanation.
La Brea is the cotton candy to Debris’ Heath Bar
There is nothing wrong with cotton candy. I love the fluffy confection, but it does very little besides rotting your teeth and being way too easy to eat. On the other hand, Debris is a multilayered, complex show with so many different flavors we barely got to taste them before the show was canceled. Debris was a slow starter that only got going in the last two episodes. Great science fiction can be that way sometimes, and Debris suffered from way too much world-building, overly dramatic emotional tugs, and an engaging but underappreciated cast. Despite the addition of genre-heavy-hitter John Noble, interest began to wane almost immediately.
Call it emotional fatigue but all the early focus on feelings and setting up our hero duo’s motivations and backstory proved too much for Debris. La Brea has gone a different direction. We only know bits and pieces about each of our “lost” people, and the episodes are stingy with the details. That leaves more time for the mystery and danger of their situation to unfold without hampering the viewer with manufactured emotions.
An intelligent audience knows when it is being manipulated, and for better or worse, La Brea is taking a less is more approach to all things drama. They almost killed off a couple of key characters, and there were some tense moments, but they weren’t contrived, and shockingly, they did not end with a die-hard bond. In fact, Jack Martin’s Josh and Veronica St. Clair’s Riley are wary and distrustful of each other. That unpredictability has allowed for a more natural progression of their relationship.
Natalie Zea(Eve Harris) is fantastic
The actress best known for Justified and The Following deserved a series focused on her. She could easily be the Jack of La Brea. She is charismatic, earnest, and believable, even if her hair, makeup, and clothing aren’t. Zea is beautiful and chews scenery like no one else on the show. However, by allowing Eve more than just a basic backstory of a neglected wife and helicopter mom, she has edges that make her more relatable and far more interesting.
The unexpected wrinkle of her ex-lover and current husband’s best friend reminds me of the early days of The Walking Dead when Shane and Lori connected after mistakenly thinking Rick was dead. There is something compelling about a love triangle, and in this scenario, it is incredibly messy. The man Eve loves is the one stuck topside, while the one she had an affair with is now stuck with her. Mess makes for good television, and this powder keg will be fun to watch.
The fact that Levi(Nicholas Gonzalez) knows more than he is saying and is deceitful means you have got all the ingredients for a Grade A disaster. Levi is a stalker in the making in a place and time where Eve can’t escape him. Gonzalez is a talented, good-looking television vet who has been in everything from The Flash to The Good Doctor. He will be around for a good while stirring up trouble and rigidly doling out information.
La Brea borrows from some of the greats
Imitation is the best form of flattery, and La Brea gleefully borrows from the best of them. Although obvious nods to Lost are scattered everywhere, it actually is more reminiscent of CW’s The 100 minus all the teen angst and Terra Nova which only got three seasons but should have had so much more. Love it or hate it, La Brea wants you to think of those other great shows when watching. It doesn’t want you to compare it so much as it does want to evoke a vibe. That vibe is unencumbered sci-fi silliness with pretty people and plenty of comedic styling.
For Lost, that was Hurley(Jorge Garcia), who was as goofy as he was eventually sweet and tragic. Likely, La Brea’s Scott(Rohan Mirchandaney), a pot vaping academic who bounces between bouts of terrifying anxiety and outrageous curiosity, will fill that role. He is endearing in his inappropriateness and intensely likable. Easily the heart and soul of the series is Chiké Okonkwo’s Ty, who has gravity to his words and actions that hint at secrets waiting to be revealed. Ensemble casts work because the sum is greater than the parts. Ensembles are exemplary when the parts are stellar, though.
La Brea was the number one new fall drama enjoying a .8 demo rating that grows to a whopping 1.1 when on-demand viewing is added in. The all-important 18-49 age group shows La Brea at number one among new shows. When all audiences are looked at, the series only trails behind NCIS: Hawaii and FBI: International, which both enjoys the benefits of their reestablished franchise audience. The series has found its place on NBC, where it is only behind the Chicago trilogy among all shows.
Audiences are fickle, and even though Manifest is a better show right now, the numbers had already started to dip until the entirety of the episodes were dumped on Netflix and found new life. After an incredible run, Netflix picked up Jeff Rake’s show for a complete final season run. With only three episodes left, La Brea will need to walk the fine line between giving away too much and not enough to make its viewers come back for more than just a curious second-season look. The potential is there. If it can’t capitalize on the early buzz, it will be dead in the water, though. Find all our La Brea coverage here ahead of tomorrows episode.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.