I watched the entire first episode of La Brea (starts Tuesday, NBC, CTV, 9 p.m.) with some fascination. For the longest time, there was only a five-minute preview to see, and a person wondered why. Now I know.
The series is so wretchedly bad, it is gripping in its awfulness. 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. When the sinkhole starts doing its sinkhole thing, Eve Harris (Natalie Zea) is driving her teenage kids to school. That’s son Josh (Jack Martin) and daughter Izzy (Zyra Gorecki). As we’re informed through in-your-face exposition, Eve feels responsible for an accident that cost Izzy her leg and is overprotective. Further complicating things is the fact that her husband Gavin (Eoin Macken) isn’t around. See, he’s a former fighter pilot who was shot down in the desert somewhere and then began having strange visions. He says it was concussion, but with the obviousness of an election-campaign ad, it’s clear that something supernatural is going to be happening.
Down in the sinkhole Eve and Josh find themselves in a sort-of Jurassic Park world. There are other survivors. One of them says, “Maybe we’re just in an episode of Lost.” It’s impossible to tell if this is meant to be humorous, because everything about La Brea is blatantly cobbled together from other TV shows and movies. Anyway, somebody finds a car with a trunkful of heroin and Josh becomes ill. The illness thing requires that another survivor, a young woman, must cuddle with him. And this brings me to yet another off-putting aspect of the series: there’s a weird erotic charge about everything that unfolds. In the same way that everybody seems to have perfect hair, everybody seems to be, you know, interested in sexy-time while this horrible disaster is upending everything.
The survivors in the sinkhole are then menaced by a wolf-like creature, created for the show by somebody who must have dropped out of the special-effects course after one semester. This critter really has to be seen to get the full impact of how unspectacular the spectacle of La Brea is. That critter is more comical than scary.
Up in the L.A. part of the story, some government officials arrive and start muttering to each other. They stroll around like this giant sinkhole is no big deal. This is annoying because even in a show as bad as this, you’d expect the government to be a tad worried. Gavin is the worried one because his visions are pretty much dramatizing what his wife is going through. By his side, Izzy stands around looking puzzled, but puzzled in a way that suggests she’s still thinking about what she’s going to buy at the mall after school.
La Brea is one of the strangest, most painfully insipid first episodes I have ever seen. A lot of money was spent on it and yet it has no texture, no intrigue at all. The characters are clichés, the dialogue ludicrous and the acting is shockingly bad. If you want to see how low network TV has sunk, just watch it. It’s very instructive.
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