A group of strangers find themselves stranded after miraculously surviving a deadly crash that’s left them far from home. They’re surrounded by a wilderness teeming with unexplainable creatures and mysterious “others.” Where are they? How did they get here? And can this diverse cross section of people—each with specific personality quirks and a dramatic backstory—learn to live together, lest they die alone?

La Brea knows what you’re thinking: “Maybe we’re just in an episode of Lost,” one character suggests early in the NBC drama’s pilot episode, which debuts September 28. You can toss some Land of the Lost in there too. It’s not long before the terror birds and dire wolves show up to clue in characters and audience that these people are somehow trapped in prehistoric Los Angeles, having seemingly been tossed backward in time after a massive sinkhole opens beneath the La Brea Tar Pits. Most likely, it all has something to do with that big, glowing crack of light in the sky—and there are some sneaky government agents topside who seem to know more about all this than they’re letting on. 

You’ve seen a show like La Brea a lot over the past decade, even as viewers’ general appetite for these sorts of twisty, conspiracy-driven thrillers seems to have cooled. This year alone, NBC canceled the high-concept sci-fi dramas Debris and Manifest. In 2020, ABC pulled the similar Emergence, starring Dallas’s own Allison Tolman, after just one season. La Brea seems well aware of not only its lineage, but the fact that it has no time to waste when it comes to hooking viewers. Its debut episode dumps its entire puzzle box out at once, teasing fragments of nearly all of its various mysteries, while also introducing us to almost every main character and what his or her basic deal is. 

That willingness to just jump right in is refreshing, as is La Brea’s general lack of self-seriousness. The first episode alone also gives us CGI monster attacks and a scene of downtown L.A. collapsing that’s worthy of Roland Emmerich, plus one character who’s plagued with trippy psychic visions of the primeval underworld that hint at a more cosmic explanation for all of this. The show is plainly ludicrous and it knows it, and there’s obviously fun to be had in that. Still, as all those forsaken Lost-alikes can tell us, it takes a lot more than spectacle and tantalizing secrets to keep viewers coming back. You need compelling characters. You have to like the people as much as the puzzle. 

This is where La Brea has an advantage in Natalie Zea, the Monahans-bred actor who’s getting her first genuine lead role after years of standout work in shows such as Justified, The Shield, and The Detour. Zea plays Eve, an office manager and devoted mom who discovers her inner warrior. Eve is determined to protect the teenage son who’s trapped there with her, and to find her way back to the teenage daughter she left behind. Those instincts soon extend to her makeshift community, as Eve takes charge of keeping everyone safe and their fragile new society functioning. 

As Zea noted during a recent Television Critics Association panel, this is uncharted territory for her. La Brea marks one of the rare occasions when Zea isn’t playing somebody’s significant other, something she’s done across most of her career—although you wouldn’t always reduce her characters to just that. Zea tends to play women who possess way too much strength and wily agency to ever be dismissed as anyone’s “other.” Take Winona on Justified, who was established as a Western cliché: the love interest who’s there to plead with the daring, dedicated lawman (Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens) to lay down his gun, even as she symbolizes all the good he’s fighting for. But whether Justified set out to write her this way or not, Zea also gave Winona a steeliness that let you know right away she was her own woman. Winona could take or leave Raylan—and when Winona ultimately did leave, Justified suffered from her absence, even as Winona’s occasional returns after that confirmed she’d made the right decision. 

There was a similar inner strength to Zea’s character Robin on TBS’s late, lamented comedy The Detour. At first, Robin seems like a cliché, a harried, cynical mom who’s stuck with her kids and doofus husband on a hellish road trip. But Robin quickly yielded unexpected layers, revealing a dark past and a loopy comic energy. Zea, who directed several episodes, also unearthed a gift for slapstick, giving her physical all to everything from pole dancing to riding a mechanical shark to drowning in quicksand. Zea played Robin as smart and bawdy, fearless and fiercely independent, and she brought lovability to a character that could have just been a raunchy cable-sitcom caricature.

Still, despite strong parts such as these, you can see why Zea once declared herself a founding member of the “Underwritten Wife Character on an Otherwise Brilliant TV Show Club.” She’s landed a handful of roles outside that rubric over the years, in parts that have also tapped into her unique, wiry energy—a drug queenpin on Under the Dome; a spoiled heiress grudgingly coming to terms with her life choices on Dirty Sexy Money. But more often than not, Zea has been consigned to playing fleeting love interests, fiery women who reel in a show’s male protagonists with her beauty and her vibrancy, only to just up and disappear once their affair has run its course. 

Immediately prior to La Brea, Zea’s roles found her romancing her old Justified costar Walton Goggins on CBS’s The Unicorn, as well as Rob Lowe’s dubiously Texan fireman on 9-1-1: Lone Star. Both of those characters were explicitly given just enough development, but not so much that they couldn’t just be removed and forgotten should Zea end up getting cast elsewhere during a pilot season (which ended up being exactly what happened). Across her career, Zea has tended to play characters who are important only relative to the men they’re dating. 

That’s not the case with La Brea. Eve does have a husband, Gavin (Eoin Macken), but they’re separated—and their estrangement takes on a whole new dimension once Eve falls through the Earth’s crust. The two seem fated to rekindle their romance, of course; that’s just how TV works. But for now, at least, the show is all about Eve. In the pilot alone, she’s given greater depth than Zea has been allowed in most of her twenty-year-long filmography: Eve is a woman who’s clearly carrying a lot behind her mask of single-mom resiliency. Most of this isn’t even on the page (at least not yet). Instead, Zea conveys complexity with the subtle shading she gives certain lines, and mostly with her uniquely expressive eyes: narrowing them to sharp-edged slits when she’s suspicious; imperceptibly softening them as she turns gently maternal; flicking them back and forth as we see Eve’s mind racing. She’s fascinating to watch, and for once she’s on a show that focuses on her.

Even if it feels like we’ve already gotten the whole gist of La Brea’s world by the first episode, Eve’s inner world promises to be worth exploring. That’s the kind of opportunity that Natalie Zea has rarely been given. It makes La Brea worth rooting for, whether you find yourself sucked in by its premise or not, and it feels a lot more revelatory than any of the potentially big answers the show has in store.