“La Brea” wastes no time before letting all hell break loose in its alternate version of Los Angeles, where an enormous sinkhole suddenly swallows up the La Brea Tar Pits and all the L.A. traffic surrounding it. Mere moments after frustrated but efficient mother Eve (Natalie Zea) breaks up a mild squabble between her teenage kids, Josh (Jack Martin) and Izzy (Zyra Gorecki), the sinkhole rips the earth open and, eventually, sends Josh and Eve tumbling in. From there, NBC’s “La Brea” dives headfirst into both a natural disaster drama and, from within the sinkhole itself, a more surreal tale of unlikely strangers banding together to survive. In its first episode, the show has enough self-awareness to have its resident slacker Scott (Rohan Mirchandaney) make the most obvious comparison straight away. “It’s like we’re in an episode of ‘Lost,'” he marvels, staring around the seemingly prehistoric jungle they just fell into. As Eve and Josh work with others on the sinkhole ground to figure out what in the hell is going on, Izzy and her father Gavin (Eoin Macken) are somewhere above them in the real world doing the same.
When “Lost” premiered in 2004, there was truly nothing else on TV quite like it. 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.
Though this moment quickly dissipates into the next more generic scene, it’s genuinely weird and even funny, in a way that stuck with me after the episode ended. Not for the first time, I thought of CBS’ “Zoo,” a once faithful James Patterson adaptation about animals taking over the world that quickly flew off the rails and became so much more interesting and fun for its efforts. If “La Brea” follows suit, it just might find a loyal audience of people willing to go with it to the ends of the bizarro earth and back. If it remains determined to take itself very seriously, though, the bland procedural lurking underneath just might swallow it up.
“La Brea” premieres Tuesday, September 28 at 9 pm on NBC.