Yes, “that submarine show” is far and away the best drama premiere of the fall season.
Granted, that sentence should not be too surprising given the talent behind the camera (including “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan) and in front if it (including the always-mesmerizing Andre Braugher), but if there were any doubt in your mind that the gimmicky show about a rogue, nuclear arms-bearing submarine could deliver serious intensity and drama each week, it is time to put that doubt in the same trash can that contained hope “The Neighbors” could be a funny sitcom.
The first few introductory minutes, heavy on formal military dialogue and interactions of limited meaning, will probably not make the best first impression. But once the dancing starts–a surefire omen for the gravity to come–“Last Resort” stands tall as one of the most intense, enthralling, daring dramas the networks have launched in years.
Much like FOX’s iconic “24,” “Last Resort” thrives by virtue of its willingness to assign legitimate stakes to its drama. Nuclear weapons truly are actually launched. People really do die. Conflict between key players escalates to a point at which crisis–rather than forgiveness–seems inevitable.
The significance of such stakes gives the ABC drama incredible freedom to explore meaningful drama, meaningful characterization and meaningful relationships. The latter–the relationship element–is occasionally declared to viewers more often than it is extensively explained or demonstrated, but those bonds that do form across the first three episodes all stem from legitimate, high-impact, emotional situations.
It is, in fact, because the action is so good at unlocking character that any retroactive education of a character’s backstory falls flat. The first episode does a great job of focusing more on the “now,” but as we dig deeper into the characters in episodes two and three, we start to see a significant disparity between the efficacy of establishing charaterization through action rather than narration.
Whether it is learning about why XO Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) carries profound loyalty to his captain, Chaplin, why Tani (Dichen Lachman) has a tense relationship, why James (Daniel Lissing) joined the Navy or even, in one of the show’s weaker narratives thus far despite a tour de force performance from Braugher, why Captain Chaplain might have an ulterior motive for his behavior, nothing resonates as well as it does when the viewer actually gets to see it.
But when held under intense weight of the show’s action–be it a missile strike from a fellow US sub, a trip through hostile water to retrieve cargo or a challenging negotiation with a local insurgency–the character behavior is so believable and so palpable that viewers will learn all they need to become invested in the series. They will have all the incentive they need to care about what happens.
Getting the most important parts right
“Last Resort” centers on the crew of the USS Colorado, which finds itself declared rogue and hostile when it question an order to launch one of its on-board nuclear weapons at Pakistan. That order, which came from the emergency Antarctic radio channel meant to only be used if Washington, DC was wiped out–which did not happen–suggests the existence of a conspiracy, and the fact that the Colorado is subsequently targeted by the US military for questioning the order only confirms it.
Much of the crew survives the attack, however, and commandeers a nearby island as it formulates a game plan for returning home and hopefully clearing its name.
Insofar as a political conspiracy jumpstarts the entire series, attention will naturally need to be paid to the shenanigans going on back in Washington. Unfortunately, even with the always-endearing Autumn Reeser toplining that storyline and reliable actors like Bruce Davison making the most of their scenes, the domestic narrative is the show’s weakest point.
There are plenty of relevant questions to answer in DC, but by struggling to dramatically spotlight those questions in the first three episodes, “Last Resort” fails to create as much nuanced intensity as it can when focused on the USS Colorado.
But, given the vast array of possibilities for developing that storyline, there is no reason to believe “Last Resort” cannot right the “political thriller” course as the season progresses. And because the action involving Braugher and crew is so ridiculously engaging–and that is where the bulk of each episode is located–the minor negatives of the at-home element are not nearly enough to outweigh the immense positives of the series.
The costs and benefits of ambition
“Last Resort”‘s incredible ability to pace its scenes assures that no time–even that dedicated to the less interesting Washington, DC plotlines–is wasted. Everything feels important, either for its direct relevance to the narrative or for its ability to provide a window into the characters. That impeccable pacing is the key to success for a show like this; nothing feels like it exists solely to bridge the gap between the various crises thrust on the crewmembers.
It also works wonders for establishing the importance of the side characters. Whereas the budding romance between James and Tani or the drama involving Kendal’s wife would be points of resentment on lesser shows, on “Last Resort,” they feel relevant and effective. And even the aforementioned political thriller scenes, which are light on content, still make the most of their time, giving the impression of urgency even if the actual narrative is not yet ready to back it up.
None of these arcs rival the show’s central action scenes, but viewers certainly do not resent “Last Resort” for giving them screentime. And by episode three, it is likely some of the side characters–those beyond Chaplin, Kendal and Grace Shephard (Dasiy Betts), who are tremendous–will have their own fanbases.
If there is a downside to the intense, meaningful pacing, it comes from the fact that the resolution to key action scenes cannot always match the ambition. Whereas the show’s boldness is one of its most appealing qualities, not everything is quite so bold and unordinary for an action-drama. In some cases, such as a shootout in episode two, the ending feels flat by virtue of being telegraphed and “usual,” even though there is nothing inherently wrong with how “Last Resort” chooses to bring it to an end.
But by raising the bar so notably in certain scenes, it is also very easy for others, while likely ambitious and well-written in their own rights, to feel mechanical. That is not the mark of a bad show but rather that of a very good show on the cusp of greatness.
“Good” isn’t always “appealing”
If the Emmy and ratings support for shows like “Two and a Half Men” over “Louie” and “Parks & Recreation” proves anything, it is that quality and appeal are not the same.
The “Last Resort” premiere is irrefutably the best of the season, and while episode two stumbles a bit with a strange, forced overly-sappy narrative in its final few minutes, episode three–which is often a “make or break” point for viewers deciding whether to get invested in the show–delivers in a very big way.
From a writing standpoint, “Last Resort” works. From an excitement standpoint, “Last Resort” works. From an acting standpoint, “Last Resort” works.
But none of that will matter if the show cannot draw a respectable sampling for its premiere Thursday night. The Thursday at 8PM timeslot has been a nightmare for ABC in recent seasons, and though it does not face any serious dramatic competition, “Last Resort” will still have to contend with powerhouses like “The Big Bang Theory”/”Two and a Half Men” and “The X Factor.”
The content, as noted, risks coming across as very gimmicky and niche in trailers, which might further dampen its appeal as a new upstart.
Simply, no matter how well this pilot clicks with its audience, finding enough success to warrant a full season–let alone many more seasons–will be an uphill battle.
But as far as premieres go, this is one that fully appreciates the need to deliver action, excitement and characterization without cutting too deeply into the big picture questions that will hook viewers for the long haul.
Is every scene as good as Andre Braugher’s submarine monologues? Of course not. But will any scene turn viewers off the way elements of pilots for shows like “The Event” did?