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Even in a fall season that already has a series asking what would happen if all the electricity in the world went out (Revolution) and another trying to turn space aliens into a sitcom (Neighbors), nothing is quite as ambitious as ABC’s Last Resort.
This is a series that could very well trigger viewers’ opt-in/opt-out urge within the first 15 minutes.
That’s partly because the pilot for Last Resort feels more like a big-screen movie than the start of an ongoing series, so viewers will have to trust that the show’s creators, Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, haven’t backed themselves into a corner and that there are plenty more storylines to follow.
Last Resort is about the submarine Colorado — “the most powerful nuclear submarine ever built” — which, 500 feet below the surface, gets an order to fire nukes at Pakistan. Its captain, Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher), readies the launch but has qualms about the fact that the order came over a different communications channel than procedure allows. The channel it was transmitted from is used only in the event that “the U.S. homeland has been wiped out.” Unsure of what’s going on, Chaplin asks for confirmation through the appropriate channel.
The voice — ostensibly coming from the White House — immediately relieves him of his duty and puts Executive Officer Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) in charge. Kendal, too, gets all the way to the last second before changing his mind and reiterating the need to have the command come through the correct channel.
That’s when the Colorado is fired upon — friendly fire — and hit. Damaged, sitting on the bottom of the ocean, Chaplin and Kendal need to make a decision as the rest of their crew wonder out loud why the command was disobeyed. Chaplin decides the Colorado needs to get out of harm’s way and they have to find out what’s happening above water and back in Washington. So he charts a stealth course to a remote island and surfaces. The locals aren’t all friendly, his crew is frustrated, and U.S. fighter pilots are bearing down on the island and the submarine. Last Resort’s premise is solidified by Chaplin’s next move — the only one he thinks he has left — warning that if the fighter planes don’t turn back, he’ll nuke Washington.
OK, so now we’ve got something truly brewing. Yet viewers will wonder, how long can there be a standoff? How long can they stay on the island? Not to mention, who called in the strikes on Pakistan?
Clearly, Gajdusek, who had the initial idea, and Ryan have thought this through. Ryan has said it’s important to view Chaplin and his crew as patriots, not renegades. And, while speaking with critics this summer, he made a case for there being plenty of plotlines and story direction.
“There’s not going to be a ‘monster of the week’ kind of situation, but there will be high stakes,” said Ryan. “There will be three kinds of threats that we deal with — first, from the outside world. America’s not happy that the submarine is sitting parked with nuclear weapons aimed at it. There’s threats on the island, as represented by Julian Serrat (played by Sahr Ngaujah), the local strongman, who is not thrilled at the arrival of these people. And then probably most interesting to me is the internal threats. There started off being 150 people on the submarine; there’s 130-something by the end of the pilot. What threats will emerge from within that group?” Some of the crew will be with the leaders, and some won’t. There even will be storylines about how the women on the submarine are treated.
There is a slightly claustrophobic feel to some of the pilot — reminiscent of the feeling the revamped Battlestar Galactica gave — but you can’t help but feel that on a submarine. Despite that, Last Resort manages to move at a feverish pace, with pulse-pounding twists and turns.
The two leads command these initial scenes, creating a palpable tension. Braugher in particular is superb, generating trust, authority and a hint that he’s got some secrets all at once.
Ryan, who created the brilliant drama The Shield, the all-too-short-lived Terriers on FX and The Chicago Code on Fox, certainly has earned some patience for what he’s trying to get at.
Last Resort has a large cast with several stories that Ryan should be able spin out to keep the viewers’ interest well beyond the pilot. The game is to hang in there for at least four episodes and see whether a solid movie premise can turn into a watchable weekly series.
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