Crashing Pilots: Last Resort
By David Mumpower
October 25, 2012

The title of this show sounds like it should be a sexy beach comedy.

Why are submarine stories such a guy thing? This is the question my wife posed to me during the pilot of Last Resort. I was taken aback by the query due to the fact that my mind boggled at the idea she was not engrossed by the story. Suffice to say that I consider Last Resort to be among the most exciting pilots ever created. Conversely, I have witnessed my spouse’s eyes glaze over whenever Last Resort gets too lost in its own storytelling. In this column, I will explore why both of us are right in our own way. Compromise is the key to any good relationship, after all.

Upon considering my wife’s submarine statement, I took the opportunity to reflect upon my love of the submarine genre. Upon first blush, I considered my initial indoctrination into this sort of claustrophobic storytelling to be The Hunt for Red October. The impeccable Tom Clancy story features one of Sean Connery’s strongest performances. It is also a movie that reminds us that at least one Baldwin brother was handsome back in the day.

The story is a masterpiece that interweaves political intrigue and lingering Cold War tension into a climactic finale. By the end, almost everyone involved with the militaries of Russia and America want the same sailor dead. Only one man stands up against this belief, and this is why Jack Ryan is an iconic literary creation. Last Resort shares similarities to this premise, which will be explored in a moment.

As marvelous a cinematic triumph as The Hunt for Red October is, I quickly realized it was not my introduction to submarine movies. Instead, that honor belongs to a Blake Edwards movie. Yes, I mean that Blake Edwards. The director known for The Pink Panther series and Breakfast at Tiffany’s also helmed Operation Petticoat. This silly Cary Grant vehicle provides one of the endearing memories from my childhood. How could anyone resist a film that includes the climactic line, "We may be pink and coming in by the grace of a woman's brassiere, but by God we're coming in!" Cary Grant can do no wrong in my eyes.

Silliness aside, I tracked my love of submarine dramas to The Bedford Incident, a Sidney Poitier film from 1965. I was about 12 the first time I watched it and I was scarred for quite some time by its ending. I hate to spoil the result for you but you have had 47 years to watch it. This poignant tale of an American destroyer facing off against a Soviet sub is an exploration of mutual hate and fear. In the end, everyone’s mistrust leads to a sleep-deprived misunderstanding due to a slip of the tongue. The final result is a bunch of melted faces and I mean that in the literal sense.

The Bedford Incident was one of the first movies I watched that failed to produce a happy ending. With the benefit of hindsight, I appreciate that the appeal of the pilot episode of Battlestar Galactica (2004), 33, is that it behaves as a spiritual successor. Exhausted leaders attempt to out-flank a relentless opponent. The quality of their decision making wanes with every additional hour without sleep.

In the end, the humans avoid their Cylon oppressors, which is a better fate than the crew of USS Bedford received. Of course, a full third of those same humans later prove to be Cylons so the only true comparison would be if a lot of sailors on the Bedford were Russian sleeper agents. The point is that the grinding nature of watery encapsulation creates magnificent storytelling options. Trapping underwater in a submersible, a sailor’s fate is inextricably tethered to that of their ship. Last Resort glorifies these thematic elements.

I should note that I plan to break from convention in this particular outing of Crashing Pilots. Rather than examining the pilot for Last Resort exclusively then evaluating the proceeding episodes midway through the season, this will be an all-in-one piece. The reason for this is simple. After only four episodes, I am already aware of the strengths and weaknesses of this show. Barring something unforeseen (and I will provide an update if such a story surprise occurs), I have a feel for the entirety of Last Resort.

The closing dialogue of Last Resort includes the following statement. “Test us and we will all burn together. You’ve been warned.” As far as intimidating quotes go, the Last Resort pilot is world class.

The premise that leads to this statement is terrifying. A captain in control of 16 nuclear missiles fails (or passes?) a test. Rather than perform his assigned duty and aim a weapon of mass destruction at a populated area, the naval officer requests further details. His decision violates the first law of military service: never question an order.

The fallout is dramatic. The crew members of the USS Colorado switch from dancing to La Bamba, happily wearing shades in the dark to becoming enemies of the state. The details are straightforward. The crew’s brief celebration is interrupted when they receive a coded message from Antarctica, a secondary, less secure network on their system. The command includes an authorized launch code and firing clearance.

The Colorado has television access. As Captain Marcus Chaplin states, the fact that Hannah Montana is still airing rather than an emergency broadcast signal causes questions about the authenticity of the order. With millions of lives at stake, both the captain and his commanding officer, the XO, decide to break procedure and investigate further. When the captain requests authentication through the primary network and from a voice he knows, an equally strange response is given. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, William Curry, calls. Once Chaplin acknowledges recognition of the man’s voice, Curry relieves the captain of his command and demands that the XO honor the firing sequence.

Given that Emmy Award winning actor Andre Braugher portrays the captain while Underworld’s Scott Speedman is the XO, everyone knows that Braugher’s character will reclaim power quickly, which he does. In the interim, the new and temporary captain of the USS Colorado, Sam Kendal, prepares to fire and inserts the launch key. Before turning and thereby starting a nuclear war, Kendal requests the same verification via the regular channel. The caller immediately hangs up, which must be an odd Prince Albert in a can prank call for a nuclear submarine. Kendal defers to his captain’s wisdom and experience at this point.

Captain Chaplin draws several conclusions from the recent apocalyptic events. The first thought is that the actual Secretary of Defense or even the sitting President of the United States should have called him for a nuclear launch, not a subordinate of a cabinet member. The next conclusion is that the secondary channel broadcast and inferior communication verification on a secondary channel indicate a major security breach. And the most important concern is that the crew of the USS Colorado may have just unintentionally seceded from the United States of America.

While Chaplin weighs options for this unprecedented situation, SEAL guys armed with guns show up and demand to see the firing order. As the standoff occurs between the crew members and the soldiers they recently rescued, missiles are fired at the boat at that moment. The submarine is knocked all the way to the bottom of the underground surface. The culprit proves to be the USS Illinois, another American vessel.

Loathe as I am to recite plot, I felt the need to do so in this instance because the events describe above comprise the first 17 minutes of the pilot. A nuclear sub’s crew rescues some of the country’s finest soldiers, receives a transmission authorizing nuclear attack, refuses to honor the orders without further verification, witnesses two different changes as to leader of the boat, gets attacked by the same soldiers they rescued and are knocked to the bottom of the ocean by a vessel from their own fleet. Moments later, 8.5 million Pakistani citizens are killed by a nuclear missile that is presumably launched by some yet unnamed American interest. Last Resort gets to the fireworks factory more quickly than any pilot I can ever recall.

The rest of the episode plants the seed for the future of the USS Colorado’s crew. They have suddenly become seamen without a country. In this regard, Last Resort attempts to become a kindred spirit of sorts to The Hunt for Red October. The primary difference (and similarity) is that the American government wants to capture the soldiers of the USS Colorado rather than a foreign entity.

Marcus Chaplin is the Marko Ramius of this story. By doing what he believes to be right, Chaplin becomes the world’s most dangerous man. Anyone given command of a nuclear submarine is expected to perform the most important duty, which is firing the missiles when ordered to do so. Chaplin’s refusal affects the lives of his entire crew. By the end of the first episode, he has become the world’s greatest living traitor and arguably its most dangerous terrorist. Notably, Ramius is the presumed good guy although I refuse to accept this premise as a fait accompli. Whatever the case, the identity of the bad guys is the show’s mystery, at least in the short term.

The problem with such gripping television is that once the viewer has tried the lobster, chicken fingers are not as appetizing. By setting the table with such a staggering, unbelievable series of events, Last Resort runs the risk of boring its viewers whenever the storytelling is not as shocking. To counteract this, the plot elements introduced allow for action that occurs outside the corridors of the USS Colorado. This attempt is thus far unsuccessful.

Autumn Reeser, whose name I am tempted to write with little hearts around it to signify my lasting crush, portrays a DC lobbyist . This person knows an uncanny amount about a prototype onboard the rogue submarine. She frequently works in cohorts with Rear Admiral Arthur Shephard (played by X-Men enemy Bruce Davison), whose daughter Grace is third in command on the Colorado. The other crew members resent her not because she is a woman in power but instead because the youthful lady is presumed to have advanced quickly due to nepotism.

The fact that women are serving on the ship is apparently important to someone involved with the show. Early in the pilot, there is an awkward conversation about sexual harassment to reinforce that the women are treated as equal crew members. The scene is quickly followed by complaints about Grace in particular because of her silver spoon reputation. I don’t care about any of this other than the fact that the actress who plays Grace is dreadful. Many thespians lack the range to play angry, driven characters in believable fashion. She is undeniably one of them. Any attempt at hardassery fails mightily. If Grace swallows a bullet tomorrow, I consider this a huge win for Last Resort’s future.

In stark opposition to Grace, the most interesting character is the Navy SEAL, James King. His depiction of a Jason Bourne-esque SEAL is mesmerizing television. In the pilot, he predicts exactly how he will kill several thugs in a bar. Rather than showing the action, the events are verbally visualized in a refreshing manner. This is the causality. The effect is that the local who believes he runs the island wisely chooses to retreat rather than risk the possibility of proving the SEAL correct. Even the rationale for the SEAL’s arrival at the bar is engaging. He asks for permission to store his friend’s dead body in the storage freezer until the dead man can be given a proper burial. If Last Resort becomes a hit, I fully expect James King to become the breakout star. The producers of Last Resort may recognize this, which explains why King is the only character to date who effectively maneuvers between the ship and off-boat adventures.

The other breakaway scenes featuring King involve the locals of a mysterious island. This where the USS Colorado relocates while the crew attempts to avoid further naval conflict. Sainte Marina is run by some underworld kingpin named Julian Serrat, the afore-mentioned local. His status is threatened by a bunch of Americans armed with weapons of mass destruction. I believe he is intended to be the Ben Linus of Last Resort, the malevolent force whose presence indicates that bad things are about to happen to (formerly?) American soldiers. If there were a villain thus far, it is definitely Serrat.

Julian’s primary stomping ground is a local bar run by Tani Tumrenjack (Dichen Lachman of Dollhouse), but he also visits the local NATO facility from time to time. This location is run by Sophie Girard, a French woman with a vested interest in world peace. By the end of the pilot, Sophie has lost control of her own facility as Captain Chaplin claims command of the island and all its contents. The instant I watched this sequence of events, I had concerns that were confirmed by later episodes of the series.

As phenomenal as a submarine setting is for a television program, the premise suffers the same limitations as any science fiction show such as Star Trek. Other than the Navy SEAL, the crew has not left the boat enough for meaningful action to occur. Instead, the cutaway scenes involve Washington, D.C. and the proceedings on Sainte Marina.

All of the people mentioned above plus Mrs. XO, Christine Kendal, provide the opportunity to tell stories beyond the scope of the USS Colorado. In the case of Kendal, her character was previously dealing with the ramifications of an absentee husband. Now, he is a traitor as well. The US government expends a great deal of energy attempting to use her as leverage to negotiate for her husband’s allegiance.

In theory, all of this should work well. In execution, these stories in combination are a mess. I quickly realized that I would prefer a single story focus each week rather than all of them explored each and every episode. Cutting from Washington to the submarine to the bar to the NATO facility to the sub to Washington is not only befuddling but also exhausting. None of the character arcs fail individually (well, maybe Grace’s) but the totality of them is dissatisfactory.

I choose to think of the situation in these terms. Imagine sticking tacos, pizza and ice cream in a blender. All three items are comfort foods with tremendous flavors. The combination of them blended together, however, is an idea that even Ben and Jerry would dismiss out of hand. Last Resort’s attempts to alleviate ship-exclusive storytelling create an unfocused series of events. These off-ship developments are tethered together forcibly in a haphazard manner.

What I hope the show’s producers learn is that a single off-ship storyline each week would be much more effective. A smattering of details here and there is agitating more than entertaining. A cohesive examination of political ramifications in Washington one episode followed by island fallout due to the new normal the following episode would create a stronger storytelling environment. I would rather have tacos one night, pizza the next and ice cream on Sunday than all three in a single sitting. A meal featuring all three at once is why the world needs Alka Seltzer.

Lastly, there is a fascinating antithetical between another new series, Revolution, and Last Resort. In the former show, nation states rule the land but some hopefuls want to restore the United States. A militia tyrant stands in their way. In Last Resort, the crew of a submarine effectively secedes from America in order to form a new nation on this island. Whether Chaplin becomes another George Washington or a despot remains to be seen.

By the end of the pilot, the premise of Last Resort is laid bare for the viewer: One submarine and its crew versus the world. I am confident that this idea can become a fulfilling experience, even if the impeccable quality of the pilot is unsustainable for an extended period. The primary problems with Last Resort thus far are fixable. All that needs to happen is for Last Resort to become its own entity rather than trying to be the latest mythology-based Lost wannabe.

I maintain that it is much closer in spirit to Battlestar Galactica with elements of The Hunt for the Red October sprinkled in for good measure. What I am describing is a perfect guy show. Last Resort should try to enhance its profile in this regard rather than attempting to appeal to women so much with awkward female characters. Twilight makes no effort to cater to heterosexual men yet it’s a juggernaut. The reverse can be true as well. Last Resort’s producers need to accept what the show is and who will watch it and embrace that decision. As soon as it does, the show can become as great as the pilot promises it will be. If it does not, a single season followed by an emphatic cancellation seems likely.