In the first episode of ABC’s exciting new drama series “Last Resort,” Navy submarine captain Marcus Chaplin refuses a sketchy order to nuke Pakistan, evades an attack by his own countryman, and takes over an island in French Polynesia, threatening America and the rest of the world with his boat’s nuclear arsenal if they don’t leave him alone.
This is, to put it mildly, a messy situation – one where the stakes and players and rules seem to be constantly shifting, and where Marcus and his executive officer Sam Kendal have to keep making things up as they go.
It’s also a messy premise for a weekly television show. There’s no formula for a series like “Last Resort,” which combines a bunch of elements that you don’t ordinarily see together – part Tom Clancy thriller, part “Lord of the Flies”/”Lost,” part psychological drama, among other pieces – in a way that doesn’t suggest a clear structure for how stories will be told each week, or how on Earth this fragile situation can be maintained for the seasons on end required of a successful TV show.
But “Last Resort” (it debuts tomorrow night at 8) has two men involved who give me hope. One is Andre Braugher, who plays Marcus Chaplin, and is among the best, most convincing actors we have – the kind of magnificent talker(*) who could tell you the moon is made of delicious green cheese and leave you looking for a rocket and a really big grater. When Marcus swears to Sam (played by Scott Speedman) that he’ll get them out of this catastrophe, I believe him.
(*) Braugher’s signature role remains “Homicide” cop Frank Pembleton, who once described his skills at interrogation as “an act of salesmanship – as silver-tongued and thieving as ever moved used cars, Florida swampland, or Bibles. But what I am selling is a long prison term, to a client who has no genuine use for the product.” Marcus Chaplin is not Frank Pembleton, but they share a similar verbal gift.
The other is Shawn Ryan, who co-created the series with screenwriter Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”). Ryan was the mind behind “The Shield,” one of the all-time champions of crafting storylines that seemed impossible to sustain – its pilot, after all, concluded with one of its cop main characters shooting the other in the head – but which kept on convincingly, beautifully going and going and going.
The “Last Resort” pilot episode is far and away the best I watched for this fall season. There are some bumps in the next two episodes, but also some very promising signs that, coupled with the talent involved, has me wanting to believe there is a great series here, and not just a great pilot that the series can’t possibly live up to.
Of course, the pilot has Martin Campbell – not only one of the best action directors alive (“Casino Royale”), but the director of the quintessential “Homicide” episode “Three Men and Adena” – behind the camera. He gives the thriller scenes an added zip, and he makes all the disparate pieces – the submarine, the island, and scenes on the homefront involving Sam’s wife Christine (Jessy Schram) and weapons contractor Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser) – feel like one cohesive whole. The pilot has to cover more story ground in an hour than I would like – if networks still consistently made two-hour drama pilots, this would be an ideal candidate – but the writing, direction, and performances by Braugher, Speedman, Robert Patrick (as chief of the boat Joseph Prosser) and Australian actor Daniel Lissing (as James King, a Navy SEAL traveling on the Colorado at the time of the Pakistan incident) make it work. And even if the rest of the pilot was a catastrophe, it would be worth it simply for Braugher’s delivery of the speech where Marcus tells the world the new rules and his intentions towards anyone who tries to break them.
The next two episodes were directed by Kevin Hooks and Michael Offer, who each have experience with action (Hooks did “Passenger 57”), but who don’t have Campbell’s facility with it (nor the budget he had to work with on the pilot), and there are more rough patches in the later episodes, particularly the Hooks-directed second installment, where the actors seem to be moving at half-speed in several sequences meant to be thrilling. The island/mainland split also becomes starker in that episode, and while the actors deliver certain corny lines in the pilot with enough conviction to get by, they’re clunkier in week two. James spends much of his time on the island getting drunk and trying to stay out of everything, until rookie officer Grace Shepard, played by Daisy Betts, tells him, “One of these days, you’re going to have to decide what you believe in.” (Braugher can get away with a line like that. Betts – the weakest link in the cast in the early going – can’t.)
The third episode smartly confines most of the tense material to the sub itself, as it’s an accepted part of the genre that actors standing on a set tensing themselves for depth charge explosions will always seem exciting. And in a storyline involving local crimelord Julian (Sahr Ngaujah), the show seems to acknowledge that a premise this complicated will not allow for the kind of neat, tidy and safe resolutions we’re used to from network TV. And the tension remains believably, fascinatingly high between the members of the crew who are 100 percent loyal to Marcus and those who don’t understand what they’re doing disobeying orders and conquering a tropical island.
What Marcus is doing should probably not work long-term. But if “Last Resort” wants to be around a while, it’s going to have to find a way. There are enough good signs in these early episodes to suggest it’s possible.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com