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TV Tonight: Last Resort

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A really good drama pilot is like a submarine. It’s densely packed, purposeful and efficient; there’s little wasted space or dead weight. Everything on board has to justify its existence and preferably serves multiple functions. Characters are introduced and work around one another in close quarters. Yet it manages to glide forward smoothly and seemingly without effort.

There are a lot of reasons Last Resort is one of the few new series worth getting excited about this fall, but the chief one is that the pilot never lets you forget that you are in the hands of skillful actors and producers who know how to make an hour of television. Co-producer Shawn Ryan has made shows for both cable and broadcast, from dead serious to comic (The Shield, The Unit, Terriers, The Chicago Code), and Last Resort strikes a good balance between mass popcorn entertainment and idea-driven drama.

That pilot–which you may have already seen while ABC has been previewing it online, with good reason–sets up a thrilling action premise. While on a peacetime mission to test new cloaking technology, the U.S. nuclear submarine Colorado receives an order to fire nukes against Pakistan. Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) is immediately suspicious of the order, which inexplicably comes through a secondary channel—and when he asks for explanation before firing, his sub is immediately attacked by his own country’s military. Branded a traitor, he takes the sub on the run (with many of his crew members dissenting) and finds safe harbor on a remote island, entering a nuclear standoff against his own government.

(MORE: Test Pilot: Last Resort)

That’s the plot, and there’s much more to it: the mysterious nature of the tech the Colorado was meant to test, a sinister cohort of Navy Seals who were on a mission related to the Pakistani nuclear strike and a Presidential impeachment scandal back at home. But more important to the show’s future potential as a series is how nearly every scene in the tense pilot (officially titled not “Pilot” but “Captain,” a naval play on words) pulls double duty, establishing not just the stakes and the premise but creating a sense of existing and well-defined relationships among the characters.

By far the best is the symbiosis between Marcus and his “XO,” or second-in-command, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman). No one should be surprised by a great Braugher performance at this point, but Speedman–who gave soul and depth to what could have been a generic dreamboat character on Felicity–also shines here. When Sam joins Marcus in standing against the questionable fire order, the decision seems based in years of trust and respect, though you’ve known the characters for less than a half hour.

But as the hour plays out, you sense cracks in Sam’s certitude. Marcus explains his strategy in the standoff in terms of Cold War realpolitik; like Reagan facing the Russians, he must give the outside world the impression that he’s just crazy enough to shoot back. The first crisis plays out stirringly, sketching an idea of honor that goes beyond blind obedience. But the pilot’s end—and the second and third episodes ABC sent to critics—raises doubts among the crew that Marcus may be doing more than just playing crazy.

The other lines of conflict on board the Colorado are similarly well-drawn. Like Battlestar Galactica, the show uses the close confines and constant state of threat to heighten basic conflicts over duty, honor and ethics, as the crew is divided over Marcus’ decision to refuse orders. Lt. Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts), one of Marcus’ loyalists, has trouble commanding respect, partly because she’s a woman in a still largely sexist structure, partly because she’s the daughter of an admiral. Master Chief Joseph Prosser (Robert Patrick) sees Marcus as a traitor: the order may have been right or wrong, but if Marcus can’t accept his role as America’s “unflinching fist,” how can a military operate? As on BSG, one of Last Resort’s strengths is that it takes every argument seriously. And as on past ABC epics like Lost and Alias, the show is conscious of putting every firefight, every tense countdown sequence, into emotional context.

As the Colorado’s crew takes refuge on the island–for all intents and purposes now an independent country–the crew’s situation feels no less confined and agitated. U.S. warships are encircling the island, and the residents of the island itself–including an established criminal organization–see the Colorado and its crew as intruders and, potentially, a lucrative prize.

The show’s parameters begin to expand, which gives the series potential to grow, but so far the farther the show strays from the submarine’s crew members, the weaker it is. The storyline back home in Washington, key to understanding why someone wants us in a nuclear war, plays like a sillier subplot from 24, and the islander characters (including Dollhouse’s Dichen Lachman as a bartender) are thinly drawn and only nebulously connected to the story. (Also, this is superficial, but the series is shot in Hawaii, and it’s distractingly hard not to see Lost parallels everywhere once the action moves off the ship. A standoff scene in the second episode is so reminiscent of one in Lost that I half-expected to see Sam walk across the open field to negotiate with the Others.)

Still, the second episode is a decently encouraging answer to the worry I had about the strong pilot: can this idea work as a TV series, not a movie? And look: any show that manages to remind me at once of Lost, BSG and Felicity gets some mileage with me. In its early hours, Last Resort lays in enough plot and character provisions to potentially last a long, long journey.