Action-thriller 24 captured the zeitgeist of fear following Sept. 11 that we were one successful terrorist act away from destruction and that any decision that secured the survival of the United States was correct, ethics and morals be damned.
In the 11 years since 24 encapsulated certain post-9/11 debates about torture and the ends justifying the means, that fear of terrorism happening in our cities right now as we speak has dissipated significantly. A show like 24 just wouldn't sit right now. Instead, we see dramas that are more consequentialist—terrorism not just as Snidely Whiplash villainy but as a direct response to how America has dealt with the Middle East, for better or worse. 24 begat Homeland (they share two executive producers), which won several Emmys on Sunday. Homeland's approach to terrorism is as much to answer the question "why?" as it does "how?"
Into this new view of the world and America's unsettled place in it sails Last Resort, created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Karl Gajdusek (Dead Like Me).
In the pilot, the crew of the U.S. submarine Colorado, led by Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher, at his Andre Braugherest) and XO Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman, handsome but lacking much impact in the pilot) are given orders through unusual channels to fire their nuclear missiles on Pakistan. An attempt to validate the orders through proper channels leads to Chaplin's removal as captain. But when Kendal also resists carrying out the orders, the Colorado finds itself targeted for destruction by its own military and seeks refuge at a small tropical island that also has a small NATO outpost. There, Chaplin makes a stand, demanding the United States back off or eat the Colorado's warheads.
The show offers a lot more moving parts than the summary suggests, and there's enough to see how the conflict can last at least one season. There's a Navy SEAL team the Colorado rescues whose mysterious mission clearly factors into the Colorado's orders somehow. Back in Washington, D.C., several characters have connections to the Colorado (including the Navy admiral father of one of the lieutenants on the submarine) that will keep the plot from becoming Gilligan's Island with nukes. The viewers are told through early exposition that the U.S. president is in trouble and facing impeachment, but no details are provided. The island seems to have its own crime lord who is not happy at the arrival of the U.S. military. And, of course, not everybody on the crew is happy about Chaplin and Kendal's rebellion.
The show sets the stakes extremely high in the pilot. Without spoiling anything major, there are at least two "Did they really go there?" moments (and yes, they did). The United States is unabashedly portrayed as the aggressor in the pilot, though undoubtedly some nuance will develop as viewers learn more about the circumstances leading up to the mysterious nuke orders.
In interviews, Ryan said he is aware of the political sea his show is churning through, but really he's focusing on the characters:
"First of all," Ryan told The Deadbolt this week during a call, "you just start off from a creative, dramatic point of view, 'what is something I'd like to watch?' Karl [Kadjusek] and I both really considered what the political situation was in the world as of last year when we wrote this pilot. But we're really focusing on the characters in the situation, we're not focusing on a political agenda."
In the pilot, though, the characters aren't really written strongly; instead they fit into well-worn drama tropes. Chaplin is the wise older man with a few crafty tricks up his sleeve. Kendal is the man with the girl back home he wants to get back to and start a family. The admiral's daughter is trying to prove herself as a leader and a woman in a sub full of mostly men. Robert Patrick plays a crusty master chief. There's even a fiery Latina in the mix. It's going to take some work to make the characters as interesting as the show's premise and initial intrigue.
Intentional or not, Last Resort certainly hooks into where we are now as a country. The show's marketing tagline is "Honor in Defiance," a statement that could apply to a number of political movements that have grown in our post-post-9/11 society. "Honor in Defiance" could be the catch phrase for Tea Party folks wanting to scale back government regulations and deficit spending. It could apply to Occupy activists wanting to cut the crony capitalist ties between Wall Street and Washington.
And, of course, it could very easily be applied to libertarians' traditionally dim view of America's foreign policy adventures that originate from both the left and the right, not to mention the conflict between the rule of law vs. the rule of men. Will the president's administration be sending out drones to try to take out the crew in a future episode?
Last Resort premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. eastern (7 central) on ABC.