Surprisingly fitting due to its premise, La Brea is an epic disaster series at both its most modern and oddly primitive.
Every few years, audiences are introduced to a new ensemble of castaways trapped in their own unique and mysterious wilderness. These shows keep getting made because they basically serve as perpetual motion machines. A creative enough writers room can continue introducing new characters and piling on new mysteries until the show has wrung out any and all popular interest.
With La Brea, our colorful cast of characters find themselves tumbling through a sinkhole that opens in Los Angeles and awaking in prehistoric Hollywood. Meanwhile, their loved ones in the present work to unravel the mystery of their disappearance.
I’ll get deeper into the events of the premiere, but first I’ll mention its main highlight.
When I mentioned La Brea’s modern attributes, I refer solely to the incredible special effects work and direction on display in the pilot for NBC’s new prestige drama. The scene depicting the collapse of several blocks of downtown L.A. is solid, which is good because you can’t whiff on the major disaster central to your show. Now to discuss how La Brea feels like a primordial survival series in today’s modern TV landscape.
So I’ve always been a fan of watching bad movies, partly because I find humor in that sort of thing, but also because they can teach you a lot about filmmaking. Sometimes seeing something done wrong is the best way to learn how to do it correctly. With masterful films, you often get entranced by the artistry on display, but with a worse movie you can see all the moving parts.
I wouldn’t say La Brea’s premiere was bad, but it was very basic in terms of its use of the language of storytelling and television techniques. I’ll detail a few takeaways from this as we recap the first episode. Let’s… DIG IN! It’s a pit joke.
Like all disaster epics, La Brea begins with our main characters stuck in traffic. I don’t know why they’re always stuck in traffic. They just are.
The first technique on display is simple methods to establish characters quickly and efficiently. First we meet Eve and her teenage children, Izzy and Josh. Josh asks his sister the appropriate terminology for her prosthetic leg. His mother chides him for writing about his sister’s amputation for his college essay, while he makes eyes at a young woman sitting in the next car over. Eve is late for work because she insists on escorting her children to every appointment. We then get a close up of Eve rubbing a wedding ring she wears around her neck.
So what does this tell us in one brief scene? Probably too much.
Izzy’s prosthetic leg is brought to our attention, a little clumsily perhaps, but whatever. It has a narrative purpose touched on later in the episode. We see that Josh is the type to work smart, not hard, and is also a bit of a sleazy teenager. Mom is overprotective, and estranged from her husband, either due to his untimely death or a separation. Either way, she still has feelings for him.
Then the collapse occurs. Izzy escapes, while Josh and his mom disappear in the crater. And trust me, you haven’t seen a worse hole in L.A. since The Argyle off Selma Ave. Zing!
Next we are introduced to Dad, who goes by Gavin. The show needs to get things moving, so Gavin’s character needs to get established with haste. We first see him in his truck outside an Air Force base drinking from a flask. Boom! There we go, the disaster movie trope of the washed up, alcoholic pilot. He’s pretty much Randy Quaid’s character from Independence Day. This even extends to them having revelatory information about the supernatural that is ignored due to their drinking.
Yes, since a crash landing a few years back, Gavin has inexplicably experienced visions of the prehistoric land where his wife and son are now trapped. This is very convenient and a bit of a stretch.
Gavin later uses his visions and a bit of detective work to dig up the wedding ring his wife dropped in the before times when she fell through the sinkhole. He now has proof that everyone was transported back in time.
Anyway, while a secretive government operation examines the sinkhole and its mysterious properties, we see how things are going in the land before time. Everyone acknowledges the massive glowing crack in the sky that they all fell through. Eve and Josh meet a few other survivors, who might as well have their narrative function written on their T-shirts.
First there is the suicidal psychiatrist with a gun (delivers character analysis of his fellow survivors, plus our protagonists now have a weapon to fend off CGI wolves). Then there’s the stoned guy (comic relief), the selfish cop only looking out for herself (human antagonist), the Navy Seal turned surgeon (literally, a catchall to ensure other characters have a means to escape danger), and his daughter (a teen love interest for Josh).
Our characters spend much of the episode searching through debris and cars that also fell through the sinkhole. This is clearly setting up plotlines to be fleshed out through the seasons. For example, they find a bunch of heroin in the trunk of a car (Chekhov’s heroin) and then just leave it alone.
Then Josh gets attacked by a CGI wolf, which allows Dr. Soldier to lead Eve on a collection mission to gather medical supplies, while his daughter watches over Josh, kindling those romantic feelings.
It’s while on this mission that Eve recognizes the Hollywood Hills and realizes that they are all in the past. Then they get chased by a saber-toothed tiger.
The pilot episode then ends on this cliffhanger (not really, because they aren’t going to immediately kill off these characters) and a sizzle reel of the upcoming season. Yep, the episode ends with a commercial for itself, rather than, you know, having the episode actually be a commercial for itself.
I know the point of a pilot episode is to set all the chess pieces in motion, but La Brea’s moves are a bit elementary. The optimistic consideration to keep in mind is that it offers us all the chance to learn as we go.