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NBC's La Brea feels too middle-of-the-road for a show about a massive sinkhole

  • La Brea is the latest reminder that the Lost formula is difficult to crack, says Angie Han. "In the first two episodes given to critics for review, La Brea is all breathless narrative momentum," says Han. "In addition to the big, obvious question of WTF is going on with the sinkhole, La Brea seeds a bunch of smaller mysteries and urgent mini-crises around its lush green fields: Will this character survive an animal attack? What’s with the Mustang full of heroin? Are those po-faced girls (Lily Santiago and Chloe De Los Santos) part of a religious cult or something? What is that angsty therapist (Chiké Okonkwo) trying to hide? Is that one dude (Stephen Lopez) ever gonna find his glasses? On the one hand, all this heavy plotting makes La Brea go down smoothly. If you get bored investigating one particular oddity, there’s always another just around the corner. As great as the series is at raising new questions, however, it’s not at all clear how good it’ll be at answering them...Moreover, the emphasis on plot twists steamrolls the finer character work needed to maintain our interest in the long run. While most of its ensemble will no doubt become more fleshed out as the season goes on, the first two episodes have most of them set to either 'secretive' or 'panicked,' which aren’t so much character traits as states of being. Not even the Harrises are much more at this point than generic lead characters who assume our sympathies simply because they’re upset onscreen a lot and haven’t done anything yet to indicate that we’re not supposed to like them." Han adds: "Mostly, though, La Brea seems to be playing it perfectly straight, hoping its lavish CG budget and plentiful plot twists will be enough to make it appointment TV. And yet, for a series that opens on a massive sinkhole eating up an entire L.A. neighborhood, La Brea feels too middle-of-the-road to make much impression at all."


    • La Brea is willing to get weird, even going so far as to give a shout-out to Lost: "When Lost premiered in 2004, there was truly nothing else on TV quite like it," says Caroline Framke. "Almost 20 years later, there have been so many attempts to recapture its singular alchemy that they barely even register anymore. (Unless, as in the case of NBC’s recently canceled Manifest, it ends up striking a chord on Netflix.) So on the one hand, La Brea creator David Appelbaum is smart to acknowledge his predecessor. On the other, pointing out the superficial similarities between La Brea and Lost inevitably calls to mind all the crucial differences, too. Whereas Lost was content to (and/or got the room to) luxuriate in the unknown, La Brea offers up plenty of answers by the end of the first episode. Perhaps that will keep some otherwise distracted viewers on board for the next, but more or less knowing what’s happening does suck some of the intrigue out of the air. What might yet make La Brea worth tuning into, though, is its willingness to get very weird, very quickly. For all the pilot’s urgent conversations, visions of doom and rapid-fire exposition, its best scene is its outright strangest. As Izzy and Gavin are processing the fact that half their family just disappeared into an enormous sinkhole, a flock of prehistoric vultures flies out of it and into the Los Angeles sky, startling everyone into stunned silence as they screech bloody murder."
    • La Brea is a disastrous show about a disaster: "The series is so wretchedly bad, it is gripping in its awfulness," says John Doyle. "It is a show about a disaster and what emerges in the first hour is a disaster of epic proportions. Rarely has the inanity of network TV been so nakedly exposed. Where to start? Well, it’s set in Los Angeles, but was made in Australia. Now, I’ve been to L.A. dozens of times and when there, I know the disaster people worry about is a lethal earthquake. According to this show, the worst that could happen is the area known as the La Brea Tar Pits becomes a giant sinkhole and people and buildings disappear beneath the ground. This happens in the opening minutes, with rather unconvincing special effects. But what’s revealing is the way a network show, even while dramatizing a natural disaster, sticks to its priorities: hair, teeth and smiles. Everybody looks just great on La Brea. Another priority of network TV is also on display: Always be acting! You’ve never seen such glaring, strutting and clenched-teeth delivery of terrible dialogue. At one point, a character actually says, 'I’m a doctor. I can help, so let me take a look.' Another character announces, 'Something’s going on!' What’s going on in this shambles of a show, wrapped in mediocre computer-generated effects, is an attempted story."
    • La Brea is not a good show, but it may be perfect for Manifest fans: "La Brea, a show that drops a group of humans from contemporary LA into a primeval hellhole, debuts this week to continue a few dubious traditions," says Kimberly Ricci. "First up, the show’s premise unmistakably resembles Land of the Lost, a 1970s TV series that got an awful 1990s film reboot with Will Ferrell being sucked into a vortex and landing in a dinosaur-populated land. More importantly, though, here’s the second concern: it’s an NBC sci-fi show. This does not bode well, if recent examples are any indication for the network that also prematurely canceled Manifest and Debris while leaving loyal viewers on the hook for a resolution. In the case of Manifest, fans will see a resolution (a fourth and final season) after Netflix decided that it was worth rustling up a handful of episodes to wrap up a wildly popular show that’s been sitting atop their most popular list for months. Has NBC learned its lesson? We’ll see. So, there are two strikes working against La Brea already, yet I am here to tell you that, somehow, the common ground with Manifest is both a plus and a minus. Like Manifest, this new show’s pilot doesn’t make any logical sense whatsoever, nor does it do much in the world-building department to make use of the sci-fi label. Instead, this new show sets up a group of characters with semi-convincing emotional plights to tee up some personal drama. That, right there, is where La Brea might hook some people. I’m offering that up as a plus because, in the case of Manifest (for me), I found myself a lot more invested in the soap-opera aspects of how those people trapped upon the time-warp flight would handle their f*cked-up personal lives. Also, finding out how things worked out for the people-who-assumed-their-significant-others-were-dead-and-moved-on, and so on (oh boy), was a lot more entertaining to me than attempting to care about why a detective heard mysterious voices while solving crimes. The amped-up drama was key to Manifest‘s audience appeal, which could also be a saving grace to help La Brea move past its gimmicks and watch the show."
    • La Brea is a Lost copycat that may actually work: "Shows are often compared to Lost, but the obvious influences here are possibly more striking than ever—one of my kids even said at one point, 'And there’s the Sawyer character,'" says Brian Tallerico. "As a fan of Lost, some of its mimics, and B-movies in general, I’ll admit that I found the premise of La Brea more intriguing than most of the 2021 broadcast network offerings. And while the pilot doesn’t have the immediate adrenalin rush of the first Lost (almost nothing on TV does), it does set up just enough to keep viewers engaged. This is one of those tough situations where a network sent only one episode for review, and the show is one that could really go in either direction. The concept is engaging enough that a writing team could unpack it and produce some fun, B-movie thrills, or they could get weighed down with the thin writing and cheap effects that feel like they constrain the pilot. Only time will tell."
    • La Brea re-created Los Angeles' Miracle Mile and La Brea Tar Pits with visual effects using the docklands of Melbourne, Australia: “Creating a digital replica of a few city blocks stretching from the La Brea tar pits to the Petersen museum on Wilshire Boulevard and its destruction by a massive sinkhole (was a challenge)," says visual effects supervisor Andy Brown. "The sequence involved shooting on a set of Wilshire Boulevard built in the Melbourne docklands, surrounded by a large green screen.” The team used drones and array cameras to shoot the stunts with cars and crowds. “An additional aerial plate shoot was shot in L.A. and an extensive lidar and texture shoot of the Miracle Mile block served as a base for our vfx work,” says Brown.
    • Natalie Zea says La Brea is a change of pace for her career since it's not about her character's relationship with a significant other: "I loved playing the significant other over the years and I’m happy to continue to do it, but this is very new territory for me, where the stakes are…. Not that love stakes are low, but they’re just different," she says. "The stakes are different." Was Zea prepared for the physicality of her role? "I was," she says. "I tried to get in really good shape before I left for Australia, because I knew that there would be no time to do so once I got here, so I felt very strong going into it. Fortunately, most of the more-physical stuff happened on the front end of the season. I run a lot. And I am not a runner! I am not into cardio, my trainer even knows, 'Don’t make me run, dude!' So that sucked. (Laughs) And all the running scenes happened in a cluster, and that cluster happened to be during a three-day period where I got pretty sick. I can’t shoot a pilot without getting sick, it’s in my contract. It’s weird. (Laughs) It was sort of a 'bookend' situation, where in the beginning and the end there are some good stunts for me, but in the middle it’s just a lot of running."
    • How difficult was La Brea to shoot when there are so many visual effects?: "It was almost all practical," says Zea. "Obviously not the primeval animals, but even those were costumed people, wearing a blue or green head-to-toe suit with their faces covered. It’s the equivalent of a green screen, but a body suit, so that we would have something that had motion and a presence. It was no more acting to nothing than any other thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes actors have to go and you just play to the air. Although with this show, nobody had anywhere to go, so that never happened."

    TOPICS: La Brea, NBC, David Appelbaum , Natalie Zea, Visual Effects