If you’ve watched any quality TV over the past few decades (and surely, that’s the case), then you are familiar with the work of Natalie Zea. Most prominently, you know her from Justified, the beloved and acclaimed crime drama in which she played a character (Winona Hawkins) who not only had to deal with the Dixie Mafia (while pregnant with Raylan’s baby) but got dragged to hell by many of the show’s fans. We’ll talk about that in a little more detail later, but I want to talk more about how Zea’s been a regularly working actress before and after that notable role, yet none of these projects have gone the distance. Cancellations after a few seasons (as with The Detour and The Unicorn, the latter of which reunited her with ex-fellow-Harlan resident Walton Goggins) seem to be the name of the game. She’s a beguiling actress in need of her own vehicle.
Well, there’s a new show starring Natalie Zea that you really should consider putting on your calendar. If you haven’t seen the teaser trailer for NBC’s La Brea (which arrives on Sept. 28), then stop what you’ve been doing today and please enjoy yourself for approximately 35 seconds. I’ll wait for you, and we can talk this out afterward.
This looks like a glorious madhouse. An enormous sinkhole, which looks to be at least one-square-mile in area, opens in the middle of LA and sucks Natalie Zea into some primeval hellhole. There is, in fact, a “La Brea” museum in Los Angeles that preserves what has been found in the fossil quarries known as the La Brea pits. There are bird and mammoth skeletons, and it’s a whole gateway-to-the-past thing, so I guess this show is rooted in maybe 1/10 of one fact. That’s not really important here, though. What matters is that Natalie Zea gets yanked into the worst CGI-fall possible to push her back into some prehistoric land with pterodactyls and growling creatures and peril everywhere.
It’s absurd and preposterous and probably the kind of show that could find a helplessly devoted audience, if only NBC could harness the chaos and stay patient long enough to let the story unfold. The question is this: will they do so?
There are plenty of other people (including Natalie Zea’s son) who fall into that hellhole, and (according to the show’s synopsis) the husband-type figure is left above while having visions about how to find those missing, and we really do not know anything at at all about their dynamics. What I do know is this: this is an NBC sci-fi drama, and NBC has had a real issue with not nurturing their recent sci-fi dramas in an optimal way. Both Debris and Manifest transformed into casualties, with the latter being an example of an objectively bad show that grew wildly popular, to the point where people (including Stephen King) are still actively campaigning for its survival after NBC dropped it.
What I’m wildly proposing is this: if any actress can help save NBC from making more sci-fi stumbles (and the writers/producers step up, too), it could very well be Natalie Zea. She’s plucky and never receives enough recognition for pairing drama with wry humor. On Justified, she was so convincing at being the only character who ever truly tried to talk some sense into Raylan (don’t @ me about Art; he and Raylan very clearly held begrudging admiration for each other, and Art’s reprimands were largely lip service) because (gasp!) she didn’t want him to wind up dead during his swaggery-yet-sometimes-squirrely adventures. She was so good at playing this part (it ain’t easy to stand up against a lovable hero) that it was easy to kind-of grumble at Natalie Zea, too, because Raylan was mythical, to the point where one fugitive visibly marveled at his recognition of who was coming for him.
I have a hunch that Natalie’s subsequent career moves have been a little burdened by her Winona time, for understandable reasons. Look, when one plays a cop’s wife (or ex-wife) on a crime drama, then the character usually doesn’t push back too much. They’re in the peripheral, but Winona didn’t settle back and stay quiet, and she stood firm after pushing back. And Natalie Zea played her earnestly, but one can also read a little wink to the audience in some of those pushbacks at Raylan. He deserved it too, that smirking stinker, but it’s time for Natalie to shed the residual Winona aura. And Natalie can do so while using her ability to pair her Winona-honed drama-and-humor combo for La Brea.
In the years since Justified, Natalie turned in a few respectable seasons on Samantha Bee’s The Detour, which was a delightful family road-trip comedy on TBS. She also (concurrently to Justified) went toe-to-toe with Kevin Bacon in The Following, a psychological thriller series that rustled up three seasons. Before all of these shows, Natalie freaked the hell out of David Duchovny’s Hank Moody (not an easy feat) in Californication and did her soap opera time on Passions. Not to mention this: she is funny as heck on talk shows, whether she’s offering tips on the “flashback face” or admitting to her bizarre “medical problem” while Conan O’Brien can’t stop laughing.
And let’s face it: La Brea looks ridiculous in an entertaining way. Such a show requires a lead actress with a sense of humor, who can hide the giggles while playing it super-dramatic. It is very dramatic to fall into a sinkhole and find oneself in a terrifying alternate world, and yeah, I want to see how the writers clean up that hot mess. This show, from the little that has been revealed thus far, appears to appeal to the very same audience that loves Manifest. Both shows have preposterous setups that could veer in untold directions, so let’s hope that the writers can use Natalie’s strengths for good, and then maybe, just maybe, we’ll see some Justice For Winona on the horizon. Maybe she’ll even appear in that possible future Raylan show?
Never say never, and hopefully, La Brea won’t go the way of
the dinosaurs Manifest.
NBC’s ‘La Brea’ premieres on September 28.