Last Resort debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Todd VanDerWerff: Last Resort does so many things well that it makes the things it doesn’t do well stick out that much more. The show it’s being compared to the most is Lost, for perhaps obvious reasons. It’s a big event show that doesn’t have an obvious storytelling hook, so it’s possible to worry about how the story will proceed going forward even after having seen three episodes (an amazing number of episodes for a new network drama to send out). It’s filmed in Hawaii, sometimes on locations that are distractingly similar to the locations from Lost. It has a giant ensemble cast, and the show’s writing puts point of pride on developing the situation before the characters, though it does plenty of the latter as well. And, perhaps most importantly, it airs on ABC in a timeslot where nobody really expects it to do much in the way of the Nielsen ratings, which will make it all the more surprising if it breaks out, just as it was a surprise when Lost did.
The better comparison for Last Resort, however, is Battlestar Galactica, at least in its earlier seasons. The central question every episode of Lost wanted the audience to be asking was, “Oh, shit! What’s that?” There would be a crazy mystery or a four-toed statue or a smoke monster, and the hit of that bit of weirdness would be enough to keep the audience going for another week. Obviously, Battlestar had its own increasingly cumbersome mythology, but for the bulk of its run, the show was an “Oh, shit! What now?” series, one where the characters were backed into impossible predicaments, then had to find their way out of them. The same goes for Last Resort, which begins with a damned messy situation, then finds ways to make it even messier over the hours that follow. It’s not perfect, but in its best moments, it’s executed so well that it all but compels viewers on its wavelength to watch the next episode.
At the center of Last Resort is a story straight out of a Tom Clancy technothriller, one of those books people used to read on planes in the 1980s that had scenarios that were just plausible enough to be thrilling or terrifying, in alternate measure. The pilot opens by taking viewers on a quick trip through the USS Colorado, perhaps the most advanced submarine in the world and the possessor of over a dozen nuclear warheads. Its captain is Marcus Chaplin, played by the great Andre Braugher, which means Braugher fans will immediately know that Last Resort need only be a delivery vehicle for some intense Braugher monologuing in close-up and it will be at least a little bit successful. Chaplin’s a complicated guy, a man who’s hiding his share of secrets, a warrior who longs for nothing more than peace, and a student of history.
The pilot gets a touch of flopsweat while trying to establish all of this in the space of one hour, and the action Chaplin takes that touches off the story of the show feels a bit like he’s making it just to be making it in the moment, that the story might progress. See, somebody contacts the USS Colorado and asks it to fire nuclear weapons on Pakistan. But the channel used is one that’s set up to only be used in the event of the sudden destruction of Washington, D.C. It’s a Cold War relic nobody’s expecting to get this sort of command through, and Chaplin and his second-in-command, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) both take issue with the idea of launching a nuclear strike without knowing if civilization has ended. The sub surfaces and pulls in an American TV signal. First Chaplin refuses to launch the attack. Then Kendal does. Then all hell breaks loose.
By the midpoint of the hour, Chaplin and the crew of the sub have taken over a small NATO outpost on a French Polynesian island and are working to figure out a way to declare their independence from the nation they believe ordered them to launch a false attack, then later attacked them. At the same time, the people of the island deal with being placed under the rule of a bunch of naval officers, essentially out of nowhere, while a woman named Kylie (Autumn Reeser) attempts to figure out if what’s happened to the Colorado has anything to do with the weapons company she works for. It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, and to its credit, the pilot moves breathlessly. In fact, it sometimes moves too breathlessly, always going out of its way to favor plot over character. It’s a juggernaut, brilliantly directed by Martin Campbell and scripted with pell-mell momentum by co-creators Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek. Yet viewers who come away from the hour wondering why any of the characters does anything they do will be forgiven for their confusion. The characters largely fall into broad archetypes, and their motivations are very, very basic, like how Kendal just wants to get home to his wife (Jessy Schram). Robert Patrick’s character, the COB, Joseph Prosser, is an asshole just so the show can have an asshole. And so on.
That’s the gamble Ryan and Gajdusek are making: If they can get audiences hooked on an hour that races forward with less heed for the slower, more revealing moments, those audiences will be down with future episodes, which spend more time fleshing out the characters and the world of the show (which is our world, but only just). In this regard, it’s similar to, again, Lost and Battlestar Galactica, which both had frantic pilots that were all forward momentum and little time for stopping for breath. Yet both of those pilots also had plenty of character moments, and if they didn’t develop the characters, exactly, they at least gave viewers a better sense of who they were than the Last Resort pilot does. On the other hand, Lost had 90 minutes to work with, while Galactica had a full miniseries. Last Resort only has an hour, so it takes a gamble. Betting on sucking audiences in with a propulsive plot and filling in details later is probably the right gamble to make, but it’s definitely a risky one.
That said, episodes two and three do fill in those details, even if they suffer a bit from not having the pilot’s budget. (The big action sequence in episode two is particularly problematic in this regard.) A moment shared between two characters over a radio in the third episode is filled with a kind of tense, blissful chemistry, and reveals made about all of the characters in the episodes deepen their motivations retroactively, coloring their actions in the pilot with new shades. The series has its problems developing stories that don’t have to do with the show’s military aspects, particularly when dealing with those who live on the island already (who include Dollhouse’s Dichen Lachman), and it’s impossible to tell if Kylie is one of the worst or best new characters of the season, given how wildly she veers toward a clichéd interpretation of a tough-talking dame who flirts her way into places she should not be and information she should not have, only to be saved at the last minute by Reeser simply gritting her teeth and deciding to give a performance straight out of a Howard Hawks film.
But these are the kinds of problems shows want to have, right? Wouldn’t audiences who’ve gotten used to big, complicated cable dramas rather watch shows where the failures are those of over-ambition, rather than simply settling for the status quo? Last Resort is like nothing else on TV, and if it’s busy feeling its way toward a format that will work week-to-week, those are the kinds of growing pains shows like this often have. The series already understands how to break a larger story down into disparate chunks, as all three episodes have important tasks that must be accomplished before the hour is up, and that’s often the hardest struggle for a serialized show to overcome.
Plus, the whole thing puts one in mind of another pilot that valued plot momentum over character and told the audience implicitly that, hey, some of this stuff would get filled in later. That pilot was The Shield’s, and it led to one of the best dramas in TV history. The Shield, of course, was created by Shawn Ryan, this show’s co-creator, and he’s earned some latitude to figure this show out, based on his prior work. Last Resort might have problems, but they’re almost all good problems to have.
Scott Von Doviak: Like Todd, I’m reluctant to call Last Resort “the new Lost,” if only because that label has been the kiss of death for seemingly dozens of series over the past few years. But with its sprawling cast, budding mythology, and Hawaiian locations, the show’s not making it easy for me to avoid that comparison. (The big action centerpiece of the second episode takes place in a clearing so familiar-looking, I half expected Hurley to wander through with his nine iron, looking for a lost golf ball.) Still, there’s reason to believe Last Resort can avoid the pitfalls that plagued Lost wannabes like FlashForward and The River.
For one thing, Andre Braugher could probably read from the handbook of Navy regulations for an hour each week and it would make for compelling viewing. Fortunately, he has a bit more to do than that, and it’s Braugher’s gravitas that helps patch over Marcus Chaplin’s somewhat sketchy motivation in the pilot. It’s still too early to get a handle on much of the supporting cast (I share Todd’s mixed reaction to Reeser’s Kylie, who I suspect will not be a fan favorite), but Patrick is always a reliable presence, and Speedman is solid, if unspectacular.
The premise is far-fetched, of course, but certainly less so than a magical island with a smoke monster on it. For now, there’s enough intrigue to keep me hooked, although I can’t imagine what Last Resort would be about in, say, its third season, if it’s lucky enough to last that long. But it’s kind of unfair to worry this early on that the show will eventually turn into Gilligan’s Island with nukes. The concept may not seem sustainable, but Shawn Ryan’s track record is strong enough that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’m excited to see where this is going, and looking forward to covering it week to week and discussing it with all of you.