The pilot for the new ABC series Last Resort is easily the best, comedy or drama, of this fall pilot season. In fact, the latest from ace TV showrunner Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers) is the best network drama pilot in years. Written by Ryan and directed by the great action film director Martin Campbell (“Casino Royale,” “Goldeneye”) this first episode is so expertly constructed and packs so much into the 44-minute network hour running time without seeming rushed that it’s a master class in the pilot form.
It’s really unlike anything that the networks have tried in years. Because it’s a drama outside of the usual network TV drama comfort zone of cop, lawyer, or doctor shows, and because of the Hawaii filming locations and the fact that it’s on ABC, some are comparing it to Lost, another network drama pilot of unusual originality and ambition. But really, in tone and structure a better comparison would probably be the early, great years of the cable series Battlestar Galactica, in that it’s a story about a group of people trying to survive in a nearly impossible, constantly fluid situation in the aftermath of a horrible event. (It’s not quite the apocalypse/genocide of Battlestar but it’s pretty bad.)
On paper, the pairing of Ryan and the material of Last Resort seem an odd fit, and when I first heard about the show’s frankly kind of ludicrous, convoluted premise I wasn’t too optimistic. In essence, besides the aforementioned reference points of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, the show is also heavily indebted to the 1995 Tony Scott (RIP) film “Crimson Tide” and the works of Tom Clancy.
One of the main strengths of Ryan’s best work as a TV writer and showrunner has always been an usually high degree of naturalism, and in creating recognizably human, flawed characters within the shopworn TV genres of cop and detective shows. But it’s a whole other level of challenge to bring those characteristics to a story about nuclear launch protocol, a convoluted scenario leading to a war with Pakistan, and in which (SPOILER ALERT) a nuclear missile is detonated off the coast of Washington before the end of the pilot episode. Somehow, Ryan pulls it off here. Helped greatly by the casting of Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman in the two lead roles, the characters all suggest real human beings to a much greater extent than is typical on network TV dramas, even if the situation they’re in is often preposterous.
But yes, the master plot is right out of Clancy, one of those just-plausible-enough geopolitical scenarios that’s really just ridiculous and convoluted the more you think about it. And the first act of the pilot is almost a remake of “Crimson Tide,” a fact which Ryan more or less acknowledged on Twitter last night. As in that movie, the first act’s plot hinges on the complexity of the US Navy’s protocol for launching a nuclear missile from a sub. Your enjoyment of this part of the pilot will be greatly determined by how fun you think it is to watch serious, manly arguments about such matters. In the venerable lefty film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of ‘Crimson Tide‘ he referred to the phrase “violation of nuclear launch protocol” as sounding like something out of “Dr. Strangelove,” and was shocked that it was used “without a trace of irony” in the movie. And there is something to be said for the point of view that there’s something grotesque about arguing the minutiae of protocol when you’re really arguing about whether or not to incinerate millions of innocent people.
Still, I think Ryan, largely due to Andre Braugher’s characteristically brilliant performance, pulls off the task of creating a more humanistic, and more believable variation of the “Crimson Tide” scenario here. First of all, the idea that we’re on the brink of nuclear war with Pakistan is much more in tune with the current national zeitgeist than trying to gin up the Cold War again in 1995 was. And, every step of the way the lead characters, played by Braugher and Scott Speedman, seem to fully understand the absurdity and horror of what they’re being asked to do. The line “I’m not going to annihilate 4.3 million Pakistanis without hearing directly from someone whose authority I recognize,” and Braugher’s fantastic reading of it shows that these characters (and Ryan) have a lot more on their mind than merely following protocol.
After the “Crimson Tide” like first act the pilot completely shifts gears to become a different sort of story. And it all works! After Braugher’s character, Captain Marcus Chaplin, is sacked by the higher-ups in Washington for refusing to follow the nuclear launch orders and Scott Speedman’s character, XO Lt. Commander Sam Kendal, similarly refuses to follow the order without confirmation through the proper channels, their sub is fired on by an American ship and they have to seek shelter at the bottom of the ocean. Back home, it’s reported that the sub was fired on and sunk by the Pakistanis and this provides exactly the causus belli with Pakistan that some faction of the US government/military-industrial complex seems to want so badly. Ryan has a good track record at coming up with believable, engaging goverment-corporate conspiracies from Terriers so I have high hopes for his fleshing out this aspect of the show.
After escaping the missile attack ordered by their own government, with the loss of “14 souls,” Braugher’s character (and Ryan) come up with an audacious, just-crazy-enough-to-work plan. With the assent of his XO he retakes the captaincy of the ship, even though he’s officially been stripped of it, and surfaces the ship next to the island of Sainte Marina, part of French Polynesia and the location of a NATO Communications center in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. From here he engages in a tense standoff with the US Government. Because of the NATO monitoring equipment, he’ll be able to see any attempt by US or NATO forces to come for him from thousands of miles away, and he has access to the 18 nuclear missiles on board the ship and makes clear he’s not afraid to use them to protect the island.
This latter point is made clear in the craziest, most audacious sequence in the pilot and indeed on network television in some time. (SPOILER ALERT) After a faction of Captain Chaplin’s crew tries to mutiny against him and turns off the NATO monitoring equipment, two bombers are sent to blow the island and all its inhabitants to smithereens. Once Chaplin regains control of the ship he retaliates by firing one of his ICBM’s at Washington DC. While most network television shows would make it clear from the beginning that our hero was just bluffing, “Last Resort” keeps that point ambiguous until the very last second, to great effect.
Even after Chaplin’s antagonists in Washington call off their bombers, Braugher tells them it’s too late for him to redirect his missile. In the end it turns out he’s set the missile to detonate 200 miles off the coast of DC, allegedly not close enough to hurt anyone, but close enough for a mushroom cloud to be visible to all of the denizens of the nation’s capital. Again, this all sounds ridiculous on paper but thanks to the subtleties of the writing, acting, and directing it’s all grounded in recognizable human behavior.
The only less than successful aspect of the pilot is the part set in Washington. This could be a problem for the show going forward. If by definition Braugher, Speedman and company will be stuck for the duration on the island, the show will literally be set in two separate worlds and it may become difficult to integrate these disparate parts. It doesn’t help that thus far the DC characters are more cartoonish and less human than the ones on the sub/island. Worst of all is a sexy defense industry lobbyist played by Autumn Reeser, who as Matt Zoller Seitz points out seems better suited to the ABC series Scandal. A sequence in which she delivers reams of expository dialogue while taking off a sexy red dress to reveal sexy, expensive black lingerie seems indebted to Tom Clancy in the worst way, and is a jarring departure from the tone of the rest of the pilot.
Still, this is a minor quibble and the bad memories from that scene are more than obliterated by an incredible speech that Braugher gives towards the end of the episode, one of the best deployments of rhetoric and acting on TV in a long time. He records a speech telling his side of the story to be released to the media back home and his concerns in the speech seem to echo the national mood in the same way that Watergate-era conspiracy thrillers did theirs. He speaks of a world in which “the fabric of trust between a government and its people has been torn,” and says that he will not “recognize nor obey a government that tries to murder its own.” These lines seem especially relevant in an era of drone warfare and assassinations of American citizens living abroad.
But really, the main point of the speech is for Chaplin to show that he’s willing to use the remaining 17 ICBM’s on the ship if he has to, that he’s-as Speedman’s character tells him after he’s finished-”just crazy enough.” Just like this show.