When Shawn Ryan's latest series, Last Resort, was announced, there was little doubt it would be worth a look. After all, considering Ryan's track record of putting compelling (if not tragically short-lived) series on television, then this submarine drama he's cooked up with co-creator Karl Gajdusek at least has some proven talent working behind the scenes. Throw in director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), and Last Resort's pilot episode, 'Captain,' stands as one of the best premieres of the fall.
One of the first challenges that Last Resort is met with is adequately incorporating the scale of the show, its many cast members and the basic premise within the confines of a one-hour premiere. With talent like Campbell at the helm, 'Captain' may have made an excellent case for being a two-hour premiere - which would have allowed for greater examination of the show's core cast. But as it stands, the episode manages to be an incredibly fast-paced endeavor that fits a wide array of circumstances, plot and characters (though most development is saved for future episodes) through what is arguably a very tiny window.
Thankfully, the episode is guided by Martin's deft touch, and even when it stumbles under the sheer weight of everything that's being piled on, 'Captain' stays on its feet and convincingly moves ahead to the next big event. To that end, much (okay, all) of Last Resort's pilot is plot, but it's a plot will likely keep audiences tuning in again just to watch the series slow down and smooth the rough edges of its characters.
The series opens with a group of Navy SEALs hitching a ride aboard the USS Colorado - arguably the most technologically sophisticated submarine in the world, let alone the U.S. Navy, and one that happens to be carrying a rather staggering number of nuclear missiles. The submarine is captained by Marcus Chaplin, played by Andre Braugher - one of few television actors capable of pulling off the requisite monologues of the character while not slipping into ham-fisted buffoonery. Though the pilot has little time for many details going into just who Chaplin is, there's enough for the audience to surmise he's well respected – especially by Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman), his XO – and is, if nothing else, a competent military strategist.
Not long into the episode, someone contacts the submarine with a command to fire two of its missiles at Pakistan - the only catch being those orders have come from a secondary channel that would only be used in the event Washington, D.C. had already been fired upon and likely destroyed. At that point, Chaplin and Kendal both agree that, considering the peculiar source of the order, if millions of lives are to be lost as a result of their strike, some form of verification needs to take place. Chaplin orders the sub to surface, and it quickly locates evidence that rumors of society's collapse have been greatly exaggerated; this fact causes the captain and his XO to refuse the order to launch (Thank you, Hannah Montana). At that point, the Colorado is fired upon and forced to retreat to a small NATO outpost on a French Polynesian island.
From the onset, there's a lot of grey area in between all the actions taken by Chaplin and his crew, and the ramifications of those actions should provide some interesting examinations as the series progresses. By the end of the episode, the Colorado has essentially seized control of the NATO outpost and the island's inhabitants, including an enigmatic gangster named Julian Serrat (Sahr Ngaujah) and a young woman named Tani, played by Dollhouse's Dichen Lachman. Most shockingly, the Colorado has declared itself sovereign and, after a daring display of strength, the world's smallest nuclear nation.
It's a tricky and compelling premise to be sure, but one that, if handled correctly, has the ability to splinter off into a whole mess of even trickier, more compelling possibilities.
What's most intriguing about Last Resort is the way the pilot leaves the rest of the series to unfold. There's no clear-cut path for ensuing episodes to follow - things could easily travel down multiple paths - and 'Captain' leaves the audience with little idea of what consistent structure (if any) future episodes will have. It also leaves the audience with almost no idea of who these characters are, and why some are compelled to follow a man making a nuclear threat against the United States. But therein lies the great hook of Last Resort. Right now, Ryan and Gadjusek have provided a compelling mystery (who gave the bogus order to fire on Pakistan, and why?) and wrapped it around a world that feels frighteningly timely. Stuffed inside that world is a whole host of identities and motivations that will (hopefully) unfold along with the show's established mystery and plot line.
When it comes to a series as ambitious and indefinable as Last Resort, the question quickly becomes: What is the endgame? One can't help but wonder just where the crew of the Colorado are headed - and in creating that level of interest with just one episode, Ryan and Gadjusek have succeeded. It's tough to sell a serialized show steeped in its own mythology without first revealing what that mythology is all about. Certainly, the concept is huge and seems nearly unsustainable after a while, but given Ryan's past success, if anyone deserves our patience it's him.
Besides, the potential development for Captain Chaplin is tremendous. Braugher is absolutely mesmerizing in the pilot (his speech near the end of 'Captain' should be reason enough to watch episode two), and the show will probably do well based largely on his performance alone. Given the circumstances in which we last see him, it's not hard to imagine a situation evocative of Col. Kurtz sometime down the road. But such things would be far into the future (and highly unlikely). Regardless, the point is: Having sizable talents like Ryan and Braugher on board gives the series leeway to conceive of and sell many creative places for the show to send its characters. Wherever that may be, Last Resort has managed to make it feel like a trip worth taking.
Last Resort airs Thursday nights @8pm on ABC.