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…"