Monday, September 24, 2012

Pilot Review: Last Resort

Last Resort (Thursdays at 8:00 on ABC; Premieres September 27)
Last Resort is the first pilot of the season that I'm really in love with. It's smart but not esoteric, complex but not confusing, political but not preachy. It's a wonderful display of talent both on and off screen, and it's a really compelling hour of TV that plays like a combination of Crimson Tide and Heart of Darkness.

The throughline concerns the crew of the fictional USS Colorado, a nuke-toting submarine somewhere in the Indian Ocean. The crew is led by Captain Chaplin (Andre Braugher, Men of a Certain Age) and his First Officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman, Felicity). The sub receives an order to launch nuclear missiles at Pakistan through a secondary communication system designed only to be used when the one in Washington, D.C. is down (AKA annihilated). Chaplin has heard nothing of any attacks on the nation's capital, so he asks for confirmation of the order; he is immediately relieved of his duty as Captain for not following the order. When Kendal takes over and again refuses the order without further confirmation, the sub is fired upon... by their own people, an American battleship. The Colorado crew repairs the sub, but not before losing crew members in the attack. Back in the United States, news programs are reporting the attack came from the Pakistani army, igniting a war between the nations. But the Colorado soon lands on the fictional island of Sainte Marina, where they commandeer a NATO communications facility and declare a 200-mile exclusion zone around the island. America sends another group of bombers to attack Chaplin and his crew, and Chaplin retaliates by launching a nuke at D.C....

The scope of Last Resort is extraordinary. The cast alone is enormous, with over a dozen speaking roles, all of them perfectly defined in the pilot. It's a true achievement to have a show that easily characterizes so many people without devolving into types. Everyone has import here, and characters that seem to be set decoration early on end up playing significant roles later in the episode. No one is extraneous, no one is wasted. That alone is a credit to creators Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Karl Gajdusek (Dead Like Me), though there is much to celebrate in their expert script. The concept could easily be dismissed as, "Well what happens next?" There's a lot going on in the pilot, and the whole idea seems better suited to film than episodic television. After all, where do you go after you've launched a nuke at the center of American government? But the final few minutes provide a great setup for the remainder of the series, expanding the cast even further to include several locals of Sainte Marina.

Speaking of which, it's incredible to me how director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) managed to make the scenes within the confines of the submarine the most successful. I would have thought these scenes would feel claustrophobic and stilted, but they're the most enjoyable of the episode. It's when the story wander outside the sub, to the island and to D.C., that it loses something. The tension within the sub is what drives the intensity of Last Resort, plus the strong performances from the cast. The crew of the Colorado is played to perfection by everyone involved, most notably Braugher and Speedman. The former is in total command of the show, delivering his final monologue with gusto. Speedman is sympathetic, the obvious hero, and an endearing presence. They are supported by a host of strong actors including Robert Patrick (who will always be the villain from Terminator 2 to me) as the disrespectful and blindly devoted military baby Chief of Boat; Daisy Betts (Persons Unknown) as the ship's lieutenant, a woman trying to prove herself in a man's world; and Bruce Davison as her father, a Navy Admiral.

With the end of the episode, the possibilities for future episodes is wide open. The only downfall is that the sub, where the pilot's best moments take place, will play a lesser role now that the crew has set up post on the island. But the potential storylines and character developments are intriguing enough to think that this will be a small obstacle to overcome, considering the strength of all Last Resort's other elements. This is one to watch closely.

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