Programming note: The decision for me to cover Last Resort was only made recently, after I handed off Boardwalk Empire recapping duties to Renn Brown following an extended, contentious movie trivia/baccarat/erection-maintaining contest (Chud’s internal allocation procedures are complex, but fair). As such, I will be doing the first two episodes together, but future installments will be be in a more timely fashion every Friday. So, on with the show…
Last Resort is the latest network offering from Shawn Ryan, best known for putting FX on the map with The Shield. It’s certainly very different in the more conventional heroes and sprawling, worldwide story scope, perhaps more in line with his previous military-themed network outing, The Unit. I don’t know, I never saw an episode of that one. But, uh, Terriers was awesome, and you should totally rent/buy/stream it.
Anyway, Last Resort has a pretty great pilot, with plenty of cinematic action and lots of set up for its very, very high concept. I’m not going to criticize it for not shading in the side characters fully, because it’s a pilot and that’s not its job. It develops Andre Braugher’s Captain Chaplin, Scott Speedman’s XO Kendall, and Robert Patrick’s crew chief. Patrick is an old pro, and he looks like a more promising potential antagonist than the local criminal whose auspicious debut involves folding to the threats of one half-drunk SEAL with his entire goon squad at his back, then doesn’t even appear in the 2nd episode.
The main weak spot in the cast is Daisy Betts, who doesn’t make the strongest impression as Grace, the admiral’s daughter. The drunk SEAL didn’t blow my hair back either, but again, it’s a pilot. As long as a couple characters pop and the premise is set up effectively, it’s a success.
Does it set up that premise effectively, though? I would say so, although I think it would’ve benefited from a two-hour premiere to minimize the whiplash between Chaplin getting the order, rejecting the order, being relieved of command, retaking command and deciding to declare himself a sovereign nation, which all seems to happen between one commercial and the next. Chaplin is thrust into an extreme situation, but he jumps very quickly to a very, very extreme response, and though he pontificates a bit about acting crazy like Ronald Reagan, he doesn’t seem quite unhinged enough for this to feel natural.
But natural or not, it is interesting, and my inclination is to accept leaps of logic that set up interesting conflicts, and take issue with those that are used to resolve them. I think the decision, and the crew deciding to at least initially go along with it, would have been better sold if one of the Colorado crew had been killed in the Tomahawk strike rather than just a jerky SEAL. If their country’s betrayal had taken a personal toll on the crew, I could see the the mutiny garnering greater support.
Despite all this, the sub/island stuff is all really strong. The homefront material is less so, but it will be vital in the coming weeks, to answer the questions I’ll get to after a quick look at the much clunkier second episode, “Blue On Blue”. This episode sets up a great conflict for the heroes with the special forces team invading the island, testing their willingness to kill their countrymen in service of this wacky scheme. Unfortunately, it is quickly revealed that the team is actually Russian, too easily resolving the conflict, at least for the characters. Those of us on the couch are still watching them shoot at soldiers who are just following orders, so how much of our reservations that twist sweeps away is probably less related to what’s going on in the show and more to how recently we’ve watched Rocky IV.
There is some clunky dialogue in the Autumn Reeser stuff on the homefront (hanging a lampshade on the expository nature of the line doesn’t make “how’s my favorite deep-cover operative in the Defense Department” roll off the tongue any smoother). And the part where she visits the hospital room of the mole to be berated by his wife feels rushed in an awkward way that does not seem calibrated to make a point about the coldness of the character.
The deep con the military is running on Sam’s wife has the potential to be more interesting, but we barely scratched that surface here.
The action is a bit more generic than in the pilot, and the locations look extremely familiar to anyone whose seen LOST, to the point that there’s probably still a pile of prop polar bear stool in the corner of the T-1000’s cage, and I’m pretty sure if you squint you can see fat guy with an Asian couple chasing an unresolved story point through the background of the Spetsnaz shootout. Daisy proves herself steelier than the men give her credit for in the process, in a development I’m guessing we see at least another 8 times before the season is over. DRUNKSEAL’s Han Solo act was also thoroughly predictable, and if that is a romantic pairing the show is going to spend a lot of time with, I’m bored already.
The strongest material, unsurprisingly, is the stuff with Chaplin and his son. Andre Braugher is on a completely different acting level than the rest of the cast (and pretty much the human race), and he pulls everyone else up with him. Scott Speedman does fine with everything, but there’s no comparison between a scene with him and Betts and one with Braugher. A strong central performance can carry a show through a ton of rough spots and growing pains, and no one has proven their ability to anchor a drama more than the former Frank Pembleton.
The big question for Last Resort, and one that every review I’ve seen mention, is how does the show maintain this premise for a full season, much less more than one? The homefront material is going to be crucial to this, as we slowly unravel the conspiracy behind the order to nuke Pakistan. It seems like Kylie and the families of our guys will work on digging into that, while the SEALS on the island are holding a key piece to the puzzle judging by the mutterings of the injured grunt played by David Rees Snell (who hopefully will be better utilized here than his cameo last year as the District Attorney’s wallpaper on Sons Of Anarchy). How that central mystery shakes out will be the biggest factor in determining whether this show can sustain itself past a dozen episodes or so.
Because this is a fairly ludicrous premise. I had problems accepting the climax of The Dark Knight Rises recently, because on some level I just didn’t buy that the biggest city in the world could be taken hostage for months on end with a nuclear weapon without the whole world doing something about it. This set up is slightly more believable, with a smaller and much more remote territory seized, a larger arsenal, and the ability to point them at the entire world simultaneously. But if there’s one thing that would unite all the warring nations of the world, it would be a rogue nuclear power seizing territories and setting off H-bombs in international waters.
How, then, to keep this situation tense enough to remain dramatically compelling but stable enough to spin dozens and dozens of episodes out of it? Well, it’s barely mentioned in “Blue On Blue”, but Pakistan did get nuked in the pilot. That’s…a pretty big deal. The US is at war, and the situation will no doubt deteriorate further as the season goes on. If it escalates into a full-blown WWIII, then it could make some sense that the world’s superpowers don’t have the resources to divert to crushing Chaplin. And if that war goes as quickly and badly as a nuclear exchange has the potential to, it could be that there aren’t any superpowers left to threaten them at the end of the year.
Okay, it seems unlikely that a network show would have the kind of balls to premiere such a grounded military show and transition to a post-apocalyptic scenario. But the island seems isolated enough that the primary setting of the show would largely be unaffected by the fallout, and it would make some of Marcus’s comments about how maybe “this is home now,” and “we could do it better here” awfully prescient. And I don’t see how you could maintain this status quo for an extended period of time.
So join us in the coming weeks as we see how Last Resort navigates the tricky waters it has set up for itself. Even if it gets really terrible and really unbelievable real fast, I can guarantee that at the very least we’ll see some great actors embarrassing themselves with crappy material. And that’s always fun, too.