When a new majority takes over in congress its members fret about how hard to go after their agenda. They want to deliver what they promised their most ardent supporters but don’t want to go so far that they alienate the swing voters who decide elections. My response to this fear is “YOGO: You only govern once.” No one’s guaranteed a second term, so govern the way you want to govern and don’t hold back thinking you’ll get this chance again.
The same philosophy can apply to telling your story television. YOBO: You only broadcast once. Don’t leave a story in your pocket for a second or third season that may never air. La Brea is definitely following that mindset. It’s inaugural 10-episode run on NBC is plowing through at least two seasons worth of reveals. Here are two that stand out:
1. Finding the survivors’ camp site in present-day Los Angeles. This is such a huge thing and possibly my favourite development in the first season. Discovering where the survivors lived allowed potential rescuers to know the people who fell down the sinkhole were still alive, but more intriguingly allowed the survivors to communicate back to the present day. How cool is that?
This reveal could have been held for the end of the season, and maybe it would have carried more of a punch if they did so. It’s certainly what Lost would have done. (Imagine if the Flight 815 survivors discovered the hatch in episode four!) La Brea’s faster pace meant it had to be established early so Gavin could find the note from Eve and save them from crashing the rescue plane. But still, investing more time building characters early on could have pushed this back to the end of season one.
A slower show could have also used this to send more messages back to the present. I would have loved to see Eve write more letters to Izzy and Gavin, or a B-story with every character writing a letter to their present-day loved ones (who, by the way, we really haven’t seen for anyone else). La Brea doesn’t seem interested in tugging that hard on our heart strings.
2. Gavin is Isiah. This does way more than reveal Gavin’s visions are actually memories. It establishes someone, or at least Gavin, can be alive in both timelines—at different ages. That’s a huge shift in the foundation of the story because now we aren’t “just” dealing with a mystery time portal. We’re in a world where there are two Gavins. Actually, we might not be in “a” world at all and instead be dealing with a multiverse. (Fringe!)
Or they could just be playing with what time travel means in La Brea’s universe. I hope not, and they should have established that better by now with a “Whatever Happened, Happened” kind of episode. The closest they’ve come is showing that preventing the rescue plane from trying to take off in 10k BC magically removed its wreckage from the present-day dig site. Maybe that was it the explainer episode, actually. It didn’t really land that way for me (pun…intended) though they have two more episodes in season one to sort it out.
There have been other reveals I consider softer, or more character based: Ty’s terminal illness, Veronica being Lily’s kidnapper instead of her sister, Marybeth saving Lucas from his dad’s plan to rat him out to the feds, and Eve and Levi having a romantic past. I probably sound like a hypocrite for discounting character reveals after writing so much about the show glossing over character development. I’m okay with that. The emotional resonance of these reveals was lighter than it could have been.
La Brea’s speed is probably dictated by only having 10 episodes. If it had 23 the way Lost did maybe it would be letting things unfold more slowly. Given the business reality of broadcast television now, I’d be surprised if we ever see a primetime serial get 23 episodes in its first season ever gain. So be it.
With all this in mind, it’s time for an accountability session.
My La Brea pilot review laid out four reasons why the show would fail. But NBC announced a second season, so clearly the show isn’t failing. Let’s see how my original thoughts have held up and explore what the show has done to improve.
NBC’s new fall drama La Brea shares [the possibility to be “the next Lost” label] as well. Which is why after watching the pilot twice I am so frustrated. Like so many other failed network dramas, La Brea runs right past its characters and into the arms of what it thinks is a tremendous mystery. That gets the formula backwards. Any show looking to be TNL has to embrace its characters and let them walk us to the mystery.
I still think this is mainly true but like I said earlier, with 10 episodes there’s really no time to settle in and tell stories.
This shows up most in the episode ending in Gavin trying to fly a drone into the sinkhole with two fighter jets ready to shoot him down. Were you scared for Gavin? Even though we know the show isn’t killing him we should at least feel tension. I didn’t. To do so I would have to either love him so much I can’t bear the thought of him dying or hate him so much I hope he does.
Other characters are getting better treatment. Ty’s terminal illness makes him sympathetic, Rohan’s comic relief is timely and informative, and Marybeth’s strained maternal relationship with Lucas all make for characters we want to latch onto. So that’s good. But Eve, Gavin, Izzy and Josh aren’t interesting at all. It’s like the show settled on one main family but only wanted to give depth to the supporting characters. Weird.
An almost laughable reveal about the hole’s location. Eve is standing by the ambulance and happens to notice the outline of the Hollywood hills painted on its back door exactly matches the hills she’s staring at. Putting two and two together she tells Ty and Sam she thinks they’re still in Los Angeles. To my previous point, the show could have had the characters spend their first day in the hole facing a drama/adventure/obstacle that led to them realizing where they are in a heart-stopping way. That would have been compelling.
That was still bad, but it’s doing better at its reveals.The woman on her death bed telling Eve about Gavin/Isiah is a good example. It wasn’t jaw-dropping but it was at least not so ridiculous.
The hole wasn’t a character. For a show set in an alternate world to be compelling, the world itself has to be its own character. It has to have the same presence the lead characters have. It has to be put under a microscope and revealed the same way a character is. No sign we’re going to get that here.
This is getting a little better. The hole’s main role in the story should be putting the characters’ lives in danger or placing a challenge between them and what they want. Both will give them something to react to over the course of an episode. The first several episodes overlooked this, but since then the mysterious hole closed and a snowstorm blew through (a weak snow storm anyway). I hope to see more of that during the rest of this season.
The least interesting ending you can imagine. A saber-toothed tiger (or something like it) emerges from the jungle. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
This is getting better in tandem with the improved reveals. I’m curious how they’ll end the season finale. I’m sure it will have a cliffy.
So there it is. La Brea has given us a lot of twists and turns through its first eight episodes, and it’s holding up better than I thought it would. I’m interested to see how they bring season one home.