Angelenos famously live in panicky fear of the Big One, a when not if doomsday that promises to wreak massive chaos and destruction—and that’s in a city already contending with wildfires, droughts, TikTok mansions, and brutal traffic. But, hey, at least we know the earth won’t split open to reveal a bright, glowing gash in the fabric of the sky that cannonballs us to a prehistoric, supernatural world. Or, uh, will it?
That’s the premise of the new NBC show La Brea (debuting September 28 at 9 p.m.), only the “Big One” isn’t an earthquake. It’s a giant sinkhole that caves in under the La Brea Tar Pits, gulps it and everything in its midst—people, cars, high-rises, and, holy shit, there goes the Petersen Automotive Museum!—and plops them into a primeval natural world where drop, cover, and hold isn’t going to do diddly squat. I don’t know about you, but that’s not exactly what I imagined lurking under those black, sticky pools (even though the 1997 film Volcano suggested it was lava—lava that could flow uphill, no less.)
In a clip of the pilot’s first five minutes circulated by NBC, we set the scene for this epic disaster. No-nonsense Eve Harris (Natalie Zea) is stuck in typical L.A. morning traffic trying to drop off her high-school-age children Josh (Jack Martin) and Izzy (Zyra Gorecki). Josh hurriedly pads his college application essay with not his own struggles, but those of his sister Izzy, whose left leg is amputated below the knee. (Gorecki is the first such actress cast in a lead role). Cue a car pulling up beside them in traffic, revealing classmate/love interest Riley (Veronica St. Clair) and her father Sam (Jon Seda), a stern doctor. There’s a quick mention of estranged dad Gavin (Eoin Macken), whom Izzy wishes Mom would take back.
Then, boom. Wilshire and its sinkhole time machine take half the Harris family down to prehistory, leaving the other two up top to keep coughing up that L.A. rent. In the full pilot provided to critics, we see the upper-world survivors scrambling to make sense of the gaping hole, while the underworld survivors—an assemblage of mostly strangers, including cynical cop Marybeth (Karina Logue), emotionally shattered psychologist Ty (Chiké Okonkwo), and pusillanimous stoner Scott (Rohan Mirchandaney)—get their bearings in a prehistoric world without evidence of the most basic civilization, much less a decent vegan spot. Scott jokes that maybe they are trapped in an episode of Lost, a bold nod to the clear influence of a forebear disaster program on ABC.
While Los Angeles has long been a backdrop for Hollywood-imagined destruction, it’s usually our most iconic landmarks that are toppled to the delight of audiences. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen the Hollywood sign brought to its proverbial knees on film. Blade Runner famously shredded downtown in a dystopian blitz; Independence Day theatergoers were said to have cheered when Los Angeles’s U.S. Bank Tower was demolished by invading alien forces, while spoofing our cliché of End Times, New Age kooks clearly expecting something closer to a love fest. (It’s unclear yet if La Brea will have a little more fun playing into L.A. realities while avoiding stereotypes, but one can dream.)
A sinkhole near LACMA is no alien war, but it does give a unique window into the Tar Pits’ modern-day relationship to the city’s prehistoric past. Located on a Mexican land grant, these methane-producing pools have been seeping asphalt (not actually tar) for some 50,000 years. The fossils excavated there in the last century revealed that the area was home to saber-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths, and dire wolves (we see two of the three appear in the pilot alone). If you’ve ever been to the Page Museum onsite, you’ve browsed their bones and learned about life in the Ice Age and Pleistocene era, where the pits embalmed animals alive alongside their would-be predators. Only birds stood a chance at picking off a snack from those immobilized in its sticky black death, and we do see a swarm of era-accurate teratorns fly out of the sinkhole on the show. If La Brea does stay faithful to the era, perhaps that would include an appearance from La Brea Woman, a 9,000-year-old murder victim (possibly a member of the Chumash tribe) whose remains caused such a stir at the museum that they were removed from public viewing some two decades ago.
The La Brea Tar Pits represent a fascinating, agonizing end to a prehistorical era, but as a show, La Brea is a fun high-concept idea that balances a bonkers survivalist scenario against one family torn apart. Unlike Jurassic Park, whose influence breathes heavily in the wooded shadows here, there’s no misguided billionaire’s evil theme park scheme needed, just an anomalous event that lets characters experience the era (which did not include dinosaurs, who died out 66 million years prior) in its original condition (those scenes were filmed in Australia).
Either way, national audiences can enjoy yet another chapter in the annals of L.A. disaster porn, the go-to cinematic comeuppance for our militant hedonism. But Angelenos will get a very specific treat, too. We don’t often see Mid-Wilshire or its deep history get its closeup, much less play victim to a natural disaster largely uncommon in these parts. We’re prepared for just about anything, but sinkholes hadn’t even made our short list—well, until now. Those characters are going to need every Miracle Mile they can get.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.