"You've been warned." Seriously, I warned you. Last Resort is this television season's best pilot (definitely among the broadcast networks, and possibly among all of TV), a thrilling hour of television that accomplishes so much in so little time, has a complete beginning, middle, and end, and even answers the show's most nagging question: Where can it go in Episode 2 and—yikes!—beyond?
We've known most of the show's premise since it was announced over a year ago: The crew of an American nuclear submarine refuses orders to flatten Pakistan after deducing that the "official" command to fire is fishy, then someone under the guise of the U.S. military tries to put a hole in their hull, and that forces the sub to park on the shores of a tropical island... where the crew declares themselves the smallest nuclear nation in the world and aims to prove their innocence. And that about sums up the happenings in the pilot episode, "Captain." (P.S. Please, showrunners, will more of you name your pilots something other than "Pilot"? Thanks.) Yet even though we knew almost exactly what would happen, the episode exceeded the giant expectations we've been setting up all year because it boasted a level of competence that is rare in pilots these days.
You can thank creator Shawn Ryan for making a show with a fascinating concept and characters that spend equal time kicking ass and acting like real people. Ryan's sparkling resume includes the gritty The Shield and the cult hit Terriers, and his talent for compacting what matters most into an incredibly dense hour transformed a summer blockbuster into a breezy, tense program. This is no-bathroom-break television that might burst the bladders of those skipping commercials on DVR or torrents.
What struck me about the pilot was how much of the series was already in place after just
60 44 minutes. Most shows love to slowly paint concentric circles, moving outward as they open up their universe over the course of the season, but Last Resort threw the whole paint bucket at the wall. The pilot inspired confidence that there's a clear road map of what's going to happen next, instead of half-baked ideas that are made up as they go along (I'm probably getting ahead of myself, but like I said, it inspired confidence!). We know the sub crew will be front and center, as will their attempts to prove their innocence after defying questionable orders. But we've also already established the NATO crew, the natives on the island, a SEAL team, a weapons technology specialist back in Washington, D.C., a rear admiral in the Capitol, and whatever other political figures are pulling strings for their own gain. There's an impossible amount of stuff going on, but it's important to note the difference between a ton of story threads included fill time and a ton of story threads that are interesting. Last Resort is full of interesting.
There were a couple of plots that stood out to me in particular as having the potential to explode with intrigue and give the series the stamina it needs to fill an entire season. First, Captain Marcus Chaplin (the always awesome Andre Braugher) didn't exactly knock on the door of Sainte Marina, he kicked that shit in. That in turn upset the previous big shot of the island, a charismatic warlord named Julian (Broadway's Fela, Sahr Ngaujah) who is used to the simple tactic of barking the loudest to get his way. Julian and his men are going to represent the close danger—like unmasked Others—to Chaplin's crew, preventing them from turning Sainte Marina into a Sandals resort with a few tons of plutonium offshore. That's practically a show in of itself. And the other surprising plot that jumped out to me involved the man who stood up to Julian, James King (Aussie actor Daniel Lissing). As one of the SEAL team members who was plucked out of the ocean by the USS Colorado, King's the mixed-up man who knows a lot more about what's going on than most. The guy was in tears watching the destruction on TV, saying it was his fault, and his wounded buddy pretty much said they hit the wrong target. What botched secret mission were they on, and how is it connected to what happened in Pakistan? And how long before he gets freaky with Dichen Lachman's sexy native bartender Tani under a palm tree? Not-so-bold prediction: not long.
But what really drove the pilot and kept it afloat was Andre Braugher's performance as Chaplin, a man so commanding that he keeps any preposterous thoughts the audience might have at bay. I don't know about you, but if we were out of torpedoes and he told me to crawl into a torpedo tube, I would. There aren't many actors who could handle this role, but Braugher is perfect as Chaplin. Here's a man who practices defiance and patriotism, a character that both sides of the Congressional aisle can get behind. It's that dogma that's the heart and soul of the show. And just to prove that he's more than another blowhard submarine boss (I'm looking at you, Denzel!), he pulled that crazy stunt at the end of the episode. Facing death by bomber, he was prepared to back off and detonate the missile he launched on D.C., because he played a game of chicken and thought he lost. He didn't need the death of others to end up on his rap sheet. But what made him such a complex character was his decision to carry out his threat (mostly) once word of the bombers' retreat came across. This is a man practicing what he preaches. He told Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) the genius of President Reagan's lunatic decisions decades ago: Image is everything, and if your enemies can predict your next move, they'll defeat you. And while we know he was doing it for show, there's a little spot in the back of our mind that says if he's willing to go that far that easily, could he go a little further? (Although I guess I have my doubts that a nuclear blast 200 miles offshore is completely harmless. Poor fishies.)
Having watched the pilot in advance on my computer, I can't say whether the special effects will pop as much in glorious HD on a big screen, but what I saw looked fantastic. Fact: Missiles flying out of the water (or into the water) look awesome, and while most or all of the submarine shots weren't real, I couldn't tell and most importantly I wasn't trying to differentiate between real and fake. I also loved the tilting camera angle as the sub pitched and yawed, and that the interior shots felt both claustrophobic and authentic. I would assume that moving forward we'll spend less time inside the sub, though, as it will be used more as a symbol of power than as a means to get around.
The biggest compliment any pilot can get is a burning desire to tune in for Episode 2, and that's what we have here with Last Resort. This is a cable show that somehow found its way to network television, and it'll have that uphill battle to climb (not to mention a difficult time slot against CBS comedies, The X Factor, and, well actually not NBC any more so never mind). Good television does not always translate to a successful run, but this one has a chance.
– One other thing I noticed, or should I say didn't notice, was the necessary exposition that typically drags down pilots. Details flowed in normal conversation because things were written in a way that weren't intrusive or insulting to our intelligence. And it didn't hurt that Autumn Reeser did some (s)exposition in her delicates. It may take a few rewinds to hear what she said, but it certainly didn't grind things to a halt.
– The character I was most worried about in the series was Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts), the pretty third-in-command on the sub with no experience who fills the requisite "C'mon, a bunch of dudes are going to take orders from a chick?" question. But having her kill a guy in the first episode certainly raised her beyond the expected stereotype. And to Betts' credit, she played nervous and awkward very well as her character roamed a sub full of people who didn't think she belonged there.
– I'm having problems figuring out the estimated location in which everything took place. From the maps on the NATO screens, it appears Sainte Marina is in the Indian Ocean. Does anyone else have a better estimate?
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter: @TimAtTVDotCom