La Brea Is a Sucking Sinkhole of a Sci-Fi Mystery Show

Both literally and in terms of quality


La Brea. NBC. Tuesday, September 28, 9 p.m.

Way back in 1977, the same year the ever-forward-looking programming geniuses at the broadcast networks brought back The Mickey Mouse Club, ABC aired a landmark episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie, wearing his leather jacket and a bathing suit, jumped over a shark on water skis. Prescient TV critics immediately declared Happy Days dead Nielsen meat and coined the phrase "jumping the shark" to pinpoint the moment when the creativity of a TV series expires. (Those philistine viewers, unaware they were watching a corpse, kept the show in the broadcast top five for another five years.)

The shark-jumping occurred in Happy Days' fifth season. But a critic who waits five years to declare a shark jumped these days probably won't have a show left to declare dead; three and a half seasons is now considered a healthy lifespan for a TV series. So let's give mad props to NBC's La Brea, which vaults the Selachimorpha in precisely nine minutes when it debuts next week.

La Brea starts with a perfectly normal slice of Los Angeles life: a hopeless traffic jam in the Hancock Park area near the La Brea tar pits, the gooey final resting place of many a giant and unfriendly Pleistocene creature. And, all the sudden—boy, is it hard to write this review without screaming "spoiler alert!" every other sentence—a humongous sinkhole opens in the tar, swallowing approximately 1.3 zillion Angelenos and their cars.

I know, I know, your first thought is probably, "Oh, man, do we have to hold that recall election again," followed by, "What's for dinner tonight?"

But the traumatic birth of the sinkhole is really a terrifying state-of-the-CGI-art event, with roads and buildings crackling into twisted dust, while stuff (including people) plummets into a supernatural void. For nine minutes, you're in the middle of the most awesomely blood-curdling disaster movie ever.

And then: shark ballet!

It turns out those all those people didn't plunge to their deaths, metaphysical or otherwise. They just wound up in a pile in a meadow somewhere, conveniently surrounded by jumbled mounds of food, water, heroin, and rabid Second Amendment practitioners. As the looting begins, one character looks on the bright side: "Maybe we're just in an episode of Lost!"

That might be a bright side for them. For us, not so much. The signs of multi-dimensional time travel and seething government conspiracy begin appearing at once, and it's apparent that La Brea is going to be another one of those sci-fi shows like Manifest or Fringe or, yeah, Lost, that's high on concept, low on planning, just dawdling along toward nowhere in particular until its fans rise up in fury and disembowel the producers with shards of their own cell phones. (This very last bit hasn't actually happened yet, but I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.)

Meanwhile, remember that Happy Days continued on for a while after shark bite, and so might La Brea. There's undeniable interest in watching the survivors trying to organize themselves against those giant prehistoric wolves (yes, the same ones you saw in Game of Thrones, but not as child-friendly). Particularly so the splintered remnants of the Harris family, which was already a mess before the tar pit opened: Mom Natalie Zea of Justified had dumped her husband Eoin Macken of Merlin, crazier than a bedbug since crashing his Air Force jet in the desert a few years back. And the annoying teenager son and daughter had taken sides. Now half the family is hanging out in the incipient Ice Age and the other half in Orange County. For Angelinos, figuring out which is more dire may be the real point of La Brea.

For the rest of us, well, life is an old Bobby Darin record: "You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe, scarlet billows start to spread…"

NEXT: House Votes To Make Your Daughters Eligible for the Military Draft

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  2. La Brea starts with a perfectly normal slice of Los Angeles life: a hopeless traffic jam in the Hancock Park area near the La Brea tar pits

    With homeless people shitting in the street. Tell me it’s accurate. Or is it one of these shows that makes LA look like a clean, efficiently run Metropolis, but with a few whimsical urban quirks?

  3. (yes, the same ones you saw in Game of Thrones,

    More like Game of Groans, amirite?

  4. I think you can forget worrying about spoiler alerts since the sinkhole or whatever it is, is the most prominent aspect of the promos for the show.

  5. On the Satellite of Love
    Glenn sits in durance vile
    He has to watch bad TV
    Throughout his long exile

  6. And the award for best pastiche of “jumping the shark” goes to:

    Arrested Development.

  7. >>Those philistine viewers, unaware they were watching a corpse, kept the show in the broadcast top five for another five years.

    maybe it hadn’t jumped the shark.

    1. Maybe Nielsen carefully selected its ratings audience to be a bunch of lethargic couch potatoes barely able to muster the energy to get up to change the channel.

      I was a Nielsens rater for about week. They dropped me because I didn’t watch enough television per day. But that was because there was nothing good on. I mean, that’s a valid data point to be collecting. But no, they only wanted people who were content to watch one of the four shows airing in a particular timeslot, with no regards for the average viewer who said “Fuck this crap, come on kids lets go play outside!”

    2. It is funny when a writer in a libertarian magazine engages in class snobbery.

  8. also, the greatest song ever about the La Brea Tarpits:

  9. “Those philistine viewers, unaware they were watching a corpse, kept the show in the broadcast top five for another five years.”

    I had a philistine, the other day, imply that I was being less than libertarian for suggesting the market failed–when I said that Budweiser wasn’t the best beer in America. If Budweiser sells more units than any other brand, how can a libertarian claim that Budweiser isn’t America’s best beer? In reality, Budweiser is probably the most mediocre beer in America if it’s the best selling beer. Not too flavorful. Not too much like beer flavored Kool-Aid.

    Because the Toyota Camry is the best selling car in America, does not mean it’s the best car. If everybody in the country with below average taste is watching Happy Days + one other person, you’ve got the most watched show in America. Laverne and Shirley was even worse than Happy Days–so it didn’t have as many viewers. It was bad enough that a lot of people really liked it though.

    High quality is associated with relatively small audiences with elevated tastes. As the product is tailored to appeal to more and more people, there comes a point at which it must become more and more mediocre to do so. Unless you’re part of a relatively small audience, chances are that by the time you’ve heard about something, it’s either already over or the only ongoing version of it is so watered down, it sucks.

    When punk rock is popular, it sounds like Blink 182 rather than The Subhumans. When opera is popular, it sounds like The Phantom of Opera rather than Wagner. When Rock and Roll is popular, it sounds like Pat Boone rather than Little Richard. When Mexican food is popular, they cover it with cheddar cheese and make it with flour tortillas. When chain restaurants do fast food, the cheeseburgers suck. If you like it, though, and at that price point, who cares?

    This is one of the reasons I find the basic premise of Facebook so nauseating: Because a lot of people like it, . . . so what?! Is that supposed to be an indication that I’ll like something?! It’s like social media turns us into junior high kids who don’t know what they think is cool until they see what everyone else is doing. I might be interested in social media if there were a way to give someone a wedgie for being thirty-something and all lost in the supermarket. Grow the fuck up and develop tastes of your own!

    I saw this lady talking about the original Star Wars the other day. She’d just seen it for the first time. One of the questions she asked was why there weren’t any martial arts in the movie. Even when Kenobi is fighting Darth Vader with a light saber, they bang their swords together a couple of times, and that’s it. No karate! The rest of it is mostly *pew pew* laser guns.

    The reason there wasn’t any karate in the original Star Wars was because it wasn’t made for a Chinese audience. Do people really not understand why that would matter–as if expanding the audience to include a billion people for whom action movies and marital arts are synonymous wouldn’t change the nature of the movie? Don’t ask me why there wasn’t any karate in Star Wars. Explain to me why the last Wonder Woman movie had her doing karate! The answer is because market driven–things that are intended to be popular in both China and the United States–trend towards the mediocre.

    1. Karate’s from Japan. Kung-fu is from China.
      And the Camry is the best car (for the money at least.)

        1. Ken’s insights & observations are quite accurate, and work even here, with the commentariat. At the lowest, shittiest level of comments we have Tony & Putin’s Buttplug, in the middle, where the majority seem to agree, we have the parodist OBL, and on the rarefied upper end, we have Ken.

    2. I have found one of the worst temptations that smart people have is mistaking their personal taste as universal truth. I know so many beer-, food-, car-, tobacco-, or booze-snobs who are convinced that because the market has “chosen” something they don’t prefer that it is a failure.

      Enlightenment isn’t knowing that Budweiser is a shitty beer. Enlightenment is understanding why Budweiser, despite that, is the highest seller. And hint: It isn’t because Americans have no taste, and it isn’t because of anything to do with free markets.

      The rise of American Lagers can be traced back to its stability on shitty roads in the east coast, and shelf life when being delivered on a sub standard logistics network. The dominance of American Lagers, however, can be directly attributed to the crappy patchwork of blue laws across the country after prohibition that made distribution for independent/new brewers almost impossible. It was also cheap and reliable, given Coors/Budweiser’s ability to source subsidized corn for their mash.

      Price is now the main reason Budweiser is King of Beers. It is cheap and refreshing on a hot day. Wanna know where Budweiser is growing in popularity? Brazil! 25% yoy. You want water that will get you drunk(ish)? Budweiser! Even so, *All* InBev sales represent only 30% of the market these days. Because Americans have become richer and they can afford to plonk down $18 for a sixpack of high alcohol beer that tastes of lawnmower clippings.

      I think Ken is being too axiomatic here, as he collapses too many effects into one explanation. Sometimes peoples’ preferences aren’t the same. I want different things out of my car than the Camry offers- but for most people, including companies with fleets of them, they need a cheap and reliable source of transportation and the Camry is undeniably one of the best examples of that. Are people wrong to want cheap, reliable transportation? Are Ken or Myself wrong to want a superior “driving experience”? The great thing is that we have a pluralistic market delivering all those goods.

      Likewise, food is an area where snobs often find themselves over their heads defining what is “Authentic” rather than enjoying the story that the dish in front of them can tell. Mexican food is an AMAZING example of cultural mixing that trips people up all the time. The Flour Tortilla has been eaten in Mexico since before it was Mexico. It was brought to the new world by the Spanish who (like most Europeans) viewed Corn as animal feed because they didn’t immediately realize nixtamalization could unlock the nutrition in the kernels. We associate flour tortillas with “American” food because the flour tortilla really became popular in northern mexico, where more Spanish had settled, and where it was easier to grow wheat than corn. And of course, half of northern mexico would become Texas, New Mexico, and Southern California. But they are available in cuisine throughout Mexico.

      I guess I have always scratched my head when intelligent people insist that the world is just WRONG WRONG WRONG for arriving on a preference they don’t share. For me it has always been intriguing. How did this massive distributed computer take all this information and spit out this matrix of results? It will never be for one reason, and you will often find that one small change in variables- like the existence of one technology instead of another at a time and place- that results in surprising results!

      1. I should have added that beer snobs seem to have ruined IPAs forever. If it isn’t positively rancid, it isn’t good enough for them.

        Anyway, I was debunking one false narrative at a time, not all of them at the same time, and the one I was debunking was the idea that because something is the highest selling, it’s the best.

        Ariana Grande outselling far better musicians is not a market failure. It’s the market catering to various tastes (many of which are people with bad taste) at various price points. Plenty of people don’t like Sub Humans, but some great things aren’t for everybody.

        1. I guess my point is that “The best” is relative. Ever try to dance at a club to Hey Jude, or Pink Floyd’s Eclipse? The market is really good at solving problems. You say that Ariana Grande is solving the “problem” of a market where lots of people have bad taste. I don’t think that is right at all. There is another market problem being solved.

          I was listening to Mr Blue Sky the other day with my kids, and I was thinking, “How did this ever happen?”

          It was a popular song, but so ridiculous with weird absurd voices, crazy synth and voice modulation. Add in the orchestra during the bridge, and it is just this amazing conflagration of sounds that just work….and would never work in today’s music market, except as a nostalgia vehicle (c.f. Guardians of the Galaxy). If that song were written today, it’d be filed along side Weird Al’s music or something similar.

          While I don’t believe that anyone has a monopoly on good taste, it is plainly self evident that the tonality (musical complexity) of songs has steadily decreased. But why now? 50 years ago, during the hey day of rock music, why weren’t the masses listening to Ariana Grande? Why did they listen to the Stones and Jethro Tull and Blue Oyster Cult and Kansas?

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  11. Sinkhole followed by sinking ratings. Where do people get the money to put shit on screens? Why don’t they just burn giant piles of currency in their back yards instead? Not eco-friendly?

    1. Not much mystery about the giant waste of money that is current year “content creation”. It’s just the tail-end of a decades long grift involving people in corporate marketing, ad agencies, and audience metrics. Those groups have a strongly vested interest in promoting a “reality” in which a) HUGE numbers of Americans stare dully at formulaic shows with pretty people in them and b) are hugely influenced in their purchasing decisions by the advertising presented along with the “entertainment product”.

      Needless to say, the numbers and presumed efficacy of the advertisements have been routinely inflated for decades.

      We are now seeing serious cracks in the credibility of that model, as people are moving towards a model where they pay directly for (and ONLY for) the content they actually consume.

      So we are seeing multi-million dollar per movie actors suddenly no longer getting those sums. We see ESPN making HUGE adjustments in reaction to the millions (such as myself) who decline to pay their once-automatic fee that almost everyone in the country paid. And soon to come? Dramatic reductions in payments for the broadcast/streaming rights to pro sports, movies produced where the union labor rates for the “good hard-working crews” don’t have to be paid. Fewer “executive producer” names at the beginning of movies.

      Hollywood has long wielded a firehose spraying shit and million-dollar bills pretty damn freely. We’ll see what changes occur when it’s just spraying shit. Especially shit produced by people hired for political fealty and Victimization Points who know full well they can’t be let go for poor performance.

  12. Spoiler alert:

    They’re in purgatory.

    But it sounds more like “Land of the Lost” than “Lost”.

    1. I seriously doubt that there are 1.3 million Los Angelinos who would make it to purgatory, rather than going straight to hell for eternity.

  13. I’m surprised you were allowed to write bad things about Fonzie

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  15. Eve Harris and her son Josh take a very wrong turn on La Brea.
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  16. I’m surprised you were allowed to write bad things about Fonzie.

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