The Last Ship and Television's Post-Apocalyptic Era


TNT, The Last Ship

The Last Ship, a post-apocalyptic action thriller set on a navy warship after a virus wipes out much of civilization, isn't a great show. It's not even a very good show. But it's enjoyably hokey and generally competent, the kind of straight-shooting genre TV series that, a decade or so ago, I would have really enjoyed and probably would have found a lot of fans.

The Last Ship airs on TNT on Sunday nights, and, like so many series on ad-supported cable these days, it's serialized, with an overarching plot that revolves around efforts to find a cure to the virus. But for a serialized show, it's also rather episodic, with most episodes starting and completing a single adventure story.

In some ways it reminds me of old episodes of the original Star Trek: There's a new location most every week, a tough guy commander who always insists on leaving the ship for missions, and a consistent four-part structure that tidies up most of the plot threads every hour, usually with some sort of action climax. But you can also see elements of Battlestar Galactica (a close-knit team of militarized survivors dealing with life after an apocalyptic event) and The Walking Dead (another series about a living in a world where civilization has collapsed).

Like those shows, as well as HBO's more ambitious series The Leftovers, and to a lesser extent FX's The Strain, The Last Ship projects a kind of muddled but deep-seated anxiety about the state of the world, and an obsession with post-apocalyptic scenarios. Perhaps it's something to do with the lingering trauma of 9/11, or maybe it's the cultural aftershock of the recent recession, but either way, the show takes as a given a generalized sense of instability and anxiety—a fear that anything and perhaps even everything could collapse at any time, without any warning or explanation.

These are shows about what happens when life as we know it now ends forever, and they reflect an ascendant strain worries that our current way of living could end, completely, at any time. In some ways they remind me of the spate of movies in the 70s and early 80s—Death Wish, Escape From New York, The Road Warrior, The Warriors—that also reflected a kind of terror that everything could come crashing down. The difference is that those movies were typically about specific contemporary political fears—urban crime, gangs, political corruption, the oil crisis. The new post-apocalyptic sensibility, on the other hand, tends to reflect something a bit more nebulous. It's a particularly modern fear of complexity and fragmentation and massive systemic breakdown. It's not just a vague worry about the end of everything. It's a worry about the possibility that everything might end and we won't even know why.

The Last Ship is, by far, the lightest and least gloomy of these thematically linked series, concerned more with hitting its episodic action-adventure beats than with exploring darkness and loss. Which is why it also reminds me of the sort of no-frills thrillers and action movies that Hollywood used to make far more often. In particular, it recalls some of the mid-to-late 80s heroic action movies, the ones starring tough guys like Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone, many of which had a soft conservative bias that you also see in The Last Ship. It's a show in which Middle Eastern terrorists held in Guantanamo are unambiguous bad guys, private security contractors are good guys, religious belief is normal and accepted, and the heroes—acting on their own but in the uniforms of the U.S. military—decide in one episode to take out the equivalent of a small, third-world dictator, despite a lecture on the perils of interventionism. There's even a regular role for outspoken conservative actor Adam Baldwin. It's a post-apocalyptic action series as if crafted by the Bush administration.

Like I said, it's not great, but it is surprisingly competent, with crisp action, clear plotting, an intriguing overall mystery, and strong production values. Which is why it's also suggestive of the ways that both television and movies have changed over the last few years. In the 1980s or 90s, a show like this, with high production values, solid execution, and a strong concept, might have been one of the better shows on television, or at least one of the best genre shows on in any given year. Now it's merely average, relative to what else is available.

Shows like The Last Ship, as well as TNT's Legends end up filling the middle-market niche left by Hollywood, which has gravitated toward a system that focuses almost exclusively on a few giant-sized tentpole releases each year. The Last Ship is the TV equivalent of the competent, not-too-ambitious, low-to-mid-budget movie that's rarely made anymore. And it's made possible by the rapidly growing market for original scripted programming on cable, and the decline of the broadcast network model that ruled for so many decades. These days TNT can afford to make a bet on a show like The Last Ship and also to renew it for a second season, even with modest ratings

In that sense, the show is actually the result of the kind of complexity that it and other current post-apocalyptic shows seem to fear—the product of a media ecosystem that is increasingly fragmented and niche-driven, one that produces far more original series, often at far higher quality, than it did just a decade or two ago, even as the old network-driven system collapses, and Hollywood becomes driven by an ever-smaller number of mass-appeal megahits.

In a way, then, the evolving media marketplace that gave us The Last Ship and its fellow apocalyptic dramas provides a response to the fears of systemic breakdown that they reflect: Yes, the old ways and old standards might end, but something more interesting and more complex will arise in its place. Television is emerging from its own apocalypse, and this is what TV looks like in the post-apocalyptic era—it's sprawling, interesting, niche-focused, and surprisingly great.