It may be a slight spoiler to say that ABC's new action drama, Last Resort, isn't actually a show about a submarine. The majority of the pilot takes place on a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, and almost all of the show's featured characters are crew members, but what goes down must come up, and by the end of the first episode, that vessel is docked somewhere in the South Pacific and its passengers are roving about like the cast of Lost. In Last Resort, ABC has produced one of the most sure-footed, well-acted, precisely paced pilots of the new season, but as the action surfaces, leaving behind the cramped, dramatic setting of the sub, it's entirely possible we could all get a serious case of the bends.
The show's premise is both straightforward and completely bananas. An American nuclear submarine and its happy-go-lucky crew, led by Captain Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and Lt. Commander Kendal (Scott Speedman), are gaily zipping around the depths of the South Pacific when they're called to surface and rescue a team of Navy SEALS. Once the SEALS are on board, things start to go get kooky. First, the sub receives a suspicious order to launch two nuclear warheads at Pakistan. After some tense back and forth with ground command, Chaplin eventually disobeys the order, surfaces the sub, forcibly colonizes a small tropical island, and founds a small nuclear dictatorship.
The action is edited and choreographed in a way that outclasses almost everything else on network TV right now, the dialogue is conventional but snappy, and the pilot manages to palatably sneak in huge amounts of exposition without the budget of its premium-cable counterparts. The series is modestly cinematic, credibly tense, and jerry-rigged with plenty of plot complications and characters ready to explode on demand, particularly a mutinous sailor (Robert Patrick) and a sexy-nerdy radar operator (Camille de Pazzis). The already-rich, lived-in feel of Chaplin and Kendal's father/son, teacher/student bond would be more than enough for an epic two-hander as it is, but the fact that this above-average action series also has a magnetic dramatic relationship at its center gives a lot of hope for the long-term future of the show.
What doesn't offer quite so much hope is the aforementioned land-versus-sea issue. While the portion of the pilot that takes place underwater bristles with life, the landbound scenes, including thinly contextualized political and domestic power plays back in D.C. and some paint-by-numbers post-colonial gangster nonsense on the island where the sub surfaces, are more scattered. A show about a submarine would have been almost prohibitively ambitious by itself, but Last Resort also seems to want to be two or three other shows as well. It remains to be seen whether the show's creators can import the dynamism they've accessed in the lives of soldiers living in close quarters to this new, expansive island location.
The show's other unique challenge, and one it's already begun to handle in interesting ways, is the difficulty of staging a drama at this scale in which the U.S. is the primary antagonist. While the series could really move in any direction from this point, it seems highly likely that, for a bulk of the coming season, Last Resort will be a show about a newly formed, revolutionary nation engaged in a cold war with the U.S. Certainly we'll be able to expect plenty of heady conversations about the nature of patriotism, the constitution of heroism, and the ethics of dissent as the series evolves, and despite misgivings about the pilot switching horses midstream, this may be the show's most promising element.
Earlier this year, Aaron Sorkin launched The Newsroom, a series about a popular cable-news anchor breaking with the mannered conventions of his network. The show's hero, Will McAvoy, was meant to speak truth to power, to ask hard questions, to bring the nation a critique it had been missing. But those truths McAvoy ended up being disappointingly bland and sometimes appallingly jingoistic. When The Newsroom uncritically reproduced the morbid patriotic fervor that surrounded the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, Sorkin lost any claim to radical truth-telling. Dancing on the grave of a terrorist isn't necessarily Murrow-esque. Last Resort, which features a hero who formally and on principle breaks with his country, is in a position to provide the kind of conversation about American exceptionalism that The Newsroom promised, but got too caught up in sentiment to provide. What qualifies a person as a world leader in an age of televised and live-streamed revolution? What kind of hostage mentality lies at the root of a world system governed by nuclear power? In this, the year of the drones, to what extent can individuals be held accountable for the violent actions of their nation halfway across the globe?
Last Resort is on a major network, and it isn't distanced from its topic through thinly fictionalized world governments. So we don't get the same kind of layered critique that was built on a show like Battlestar Galactica, to which Last Resort owes a great deal. But the series manages to be both entertaining and self-reflexive, populist and purposeful, and that's a rare thing in and of itself.