Magazine publisher Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), driving back from a conference on the threat of pollution, is overcome by smog in the hills outside Los Angeles, and drives off the road. He blacks out in 1971 but is woken up in 2017 – by Geoffrey Lewis in a gas-mask – and hauled into the underground complex which has replaced the city after a global eco-doom that began when pollution killed off all the algae in the sea, creating a shroud of toxic gas that reduced the Earth’s population to about three million souls living in dystopian bunkers with child-rearing (and post-natal abortion) out of Brave New World, eternal surveillance out of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bunch of satirical-nightmarish new licks from veteran s-f writer Philip Wylie (who scripted this ‘very special episode’ of the ninety-minute contemporary drama series, The Name of the Game). This was Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length TV work, and it’s either a testimony to his golden boy rep that he was given a plum show over more experienced hands or a fluke decision to dump the weird script on the kid in the corner in the hope that he might understand it. Barry, Spielberg’s first leading man, later had a significant bit-role in his War of the Worlds.
Made about the same time George Lucas was working on the feature-length version of THX 1138, with which it shares some themes, LA 2019 also has parallels with the dystopian look of Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green. It must have been a disorienting watch for viewers at the time, though the despairing fall of the plot – the hero is doomed to be crushed by the world of the future – is a strong indicator that a reset button will be pressed in the finale, which finds Howard waking up from his detailed dream and a Wizard of Oz bit with Lewis as a contemporary cop. It’s hard to see how else something like this could have been fit into a drama strand in 1971 (or even now), but Wylie takes care to give the prophetic warning some bite that makes it more than a surreal dream. Just as the out-of-time hero is expressing his disgust with the appalling world, the Vice-President in charge of Los Angeles (Barry Sullivan) lays into him and points out reasonably that this future is the fault of his generation who drove gas-guzzlers and held conferences on pollution without actually doing anything about the problem that has driven the few survivors underground.
On a limited budget, the show manages a consistent vision of the future, which now looks like a mix of clunkily ridiculous wrong guesses (a primitive question-answering computer), on-the-money predictions (a senior citizen hippie rock band in a nostalgia bar full of old folks in 1970s hipster gear), horribly credible jokes (‘the police service’ consists of psychiatrists in dark suits), strange disconnects (a social evening is spoiled when the host is bereft by the death of one of the last goldfish in the world) and the always-effective tactic of making you extrapolate a picture of this society from hints dropped in signage, graffiti, offhand remarks (parenting is ‘left to the professionals’) and MASH-style intercom announcements (‘consider an exciting, colourful career as a police informant’). Note the tipsy hostess (Louise Latham) who expects a guest to have sex with her and dials for ‘companion services’ when rebuffed; the luxury drink of the elite being milk from ‘a privately-owned’ cow; a war with England fought by fifteen-year-old pilots; the as-relevant-now-as-in-1971 circular logic that a running man shot dead by cops must have been a criminal because why else would he be in that situation; a corporate government whose Chairman (Regis Cordic) insists on chummy first-name terms and beams in as a wobbly hologram from the seat of government in Detroit to cities run by Vice-Presidents. The climax returns Howard to the dusty, abandoned ruin of his office (a redressed set with a red sky diorama outside) and gets on the road for a car chase/shoot-out which is Spielberg’s first big action scene.
The Name of the Game – a last gasp for the ‘rotating leading man’ format, with Barry alternating with Anthony Franciosa and Robert Stack – was a prestige show, and this episode hauls in a strong guest cast: Severn Darden sardonic and dry as the genial secret policeman (prefiguring his role in the Planet of the Apes series), Paul Stewart as the head of ‘the Underground’, Edmond O’Brien (in the Soylent Green Edward G. Robinson role) as a ranting holdover from the old days, and Sharon Farrell as the V-P’s assistant/companion who falls for the old-timer she’s supposed to spy on (and is punished by being blown up in a state-arranged terrorist outrage blamed on the internal enemy). It even has odd, wistful touches – a nursery rhyme about ‘chromatic triangles’ – and if it’s preachy at the end, the message is still pertinent.