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. 

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  1. Say, is that Animal Mother?

    1. I thought it was the Hero of Canton.

      1. One and the same,
        Animal Mother
        Is the man they call Jayne.

    2. I have a new game of picking out all the movies Adam Baldwin was in that I didn’t realize he was in. The most recent was “Independence Day” (yes, I watched it….guilty).

      “Zat Animal Mother? It is!”

  2. Also, what’s up with the bullets? Is it some sort of libertarian statement?

    1. I can only assume that the empty boxes are suggestion boxes that go directly to the CEO of Reason.

      1. Please. If the Jacket wants your opinion, he’ll instruct the Koch brothers to funnel it to you through nefarious means.

  3. Missed that show, though I have been watching Falling Skies.

    1. TNT seems to have a weird fetish for casting former hospital drama cast members.

      1. They also like kitsch more than any other network.

        I will admit to liking the first few seasons Falling Skies despite the sappy sentiment and the complete inability of anybody to set aside emotions and stop constantly imperiling the group.

        The 4th season made me wonder if the staff and cast were deliberately working together to find as many rails as possible to fly off of while jumping sharks.

        My biggest question is why is the Mason family so attached to Lexie? Is there any reason why they should feel the way they do about her?

        I HATE the show whenever anyone expresses sentiment for her because it’s so contrived and undeserved. It’s only really bad writing that makes me feel this way.

        1. My biggest question is why is the Mason family so attached to Lexie?

          Just because she’s part alien and grew to adulthood in one year doesn’t mean she’s not that little girl that Tom and Anne conceived. Or is she?

          1. She’s the thing that should not be.

            I don’t see how they unconditionally love her and ascribe these great qualities to her (“Lexie would never do that”). How do they know this?

            They went out of their way to shoe us the baby was unusual, then gave us a few minutes of her around 5-7 performing an outright miracle, than we got her in her 20s.

            We the audience are supposed to feel for her too or the dramatic set up doesn’t work. I was immediately hoping that Pope would kill her and he and Tom would have another “I hate you, but I need you” moment.

    2. I checked out midway through last season, but it seems to me the only way to redeem Falling Skies is a Matrix-style reveal where the whole story has been the fevered dreams of an enslaved Noah Wylie stuck in the alien mind-control device while his body is farmed for energy.

      1. I binge watched starting in June, and could literally see the decline in the story quality that started in Season 2 and just picks up steam. This season is unwatchably awful.

        1. I’m thinking they decided to cut loose the way some people do when they know their company is closing. Just don’t show up, goof off, etc.

          They’re lining up sharks to jump and everyone’s just having a blast.
          You liked those new aliens help? Now they’re gone. Here’s a magic blonde instead.

          Harnesses were insidious and an interesting nut to crack, gone. Instead, here’s some brown shirt youth camps.

          Hey, let’s harness %PERSON1% against their explicit wishes and have them make a connection with %PERSON2% for soap-opera levels of romantic conflict.

          This whole season is almost a “Fuck You” to the audience.

  4. “It’s a particularly modern fear of complexity and fragmentation and massive systemic breakdown. They’re not just worried about the end of everything. They’re worried about the possibility that everything might end and we won’t even know why.”

    I know “postmodernism” is a dirty word in these circles, but.

  5. Why didn’t they make it a carrier? Needz moar jetz!

      1. “Hillary Clinton is also the namesake of a naval ship, an American aircraft carrier. From the perspective of the series’ 2021 setting, Clinton is a former President who led the country during a war and was later assassinated.”

    1. Same reason it’s not a nuclear powered ship, they need to be weak and have various adversities to fight through.

  6. So is the new format a Reason thing or a Reasonable thing? And what are the two boxes next to the character counter?

    1. I’ve got bullets everywhere. Looks silly.

        1. They don’t let you post if you type something in them.

          1. Same here. Maybe it goes to NSA headquarters.

        2. Maybe that’s where the bullets are supposed to go?

          1. Bullets go in the magazine.

            (Or is it a clip?)

            1. Both. My Glock has a mag – my M1 has an “en bloc clip”.

              Either way – it’s all good!

      1. You’ll be glad to have all these bullets when armageddon hits I tells yah!

    2. And then…

      Like it never happened.

      1. Kind of makes you wonder if they’re just fucking with everyone so that the entire comment thread will look like the incoherent ramblings of crazy people.

        1. why would that be any different than any other day?

  7. I couldn’t make it halfway through the first episode of the Leftovers without falling asleep.

    1. Yeah, that show sucks. HBO shouldn’t be allowed to go that long without some fucking.

  8. My knowledge of basic tech causes me to pissed off whenever they use radios.

    Traditional two way radios are single channel and yes, they can be tracked down with direction finding reasonably easy, BUT it’s absurd that they would use them without any encryption which, at it’s best, isn’t going to be broken by even highly competent people on the enemy ship without serious computer hardware onboard.

    The military and some of the three letter agencies use really snazzy (and expensive) frequency hopping radios that are harder (not impossible) to direction find because you have to sweep a very
    large range and try to analyze signal strength at the same time.
    One example:

    At the same time, the military has satellites that can be aimed at to communicate from. (Radio) pirates can be heard on them from time to time. They are not spread spectrum/frequency hopping, but encryption can be applied.

    The ship should have the ability to send a highly directional signal to one of these satellites and have it reach their people in the field without risking detection.

    I know it’s a real narrow nitpick, but the idea that the Russians would be able to listen in to anything the Americans are saying, or vice versa, is junior grade absurd plot device garbage. Having them be able to have secure conversations with neither side able to listen could be leveraged for drama better some of the crap this show has tried to pull off.

    1. Technically accurate and TV scripts are incompatible things

      1. Walt Disney explained a long time ago that there is “impossible” and “plausibly impossible”. Plausibly impossible allows a cartoon character to walk off a cliff, hang in the air, look down, and the look at the camera and say “oh shit”.

        “Technically accurate” isn’t required, just don’t rub bullshit in my face while you’re telling me a story.

        1. just don’t rub bullshit in my face while you’re telling me a story

          No wonder you’re not a Democrat

  9. No more bullets!

  10. I love Adam Baldwin – didn’t know he was in this, and never watched the show, cause it kind of looked like it would suck based on the ads I saw.

    BUT – with your description of things, I’ll give it a watch. Soon. “Don’t worry – I’ll skip the foreplay!”

    Thanks for the info, Peter!

    1. I have only seen the first episode. It is not good and he is not good in it.

      1. BUZZKILLER!

      2. Mr. Baldwin sucked no worse than the rest of the crew. But that is not high praise at all.

  11. PS And now the bullets have disappeared from the comments and it looks like normal.


  12. 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

    I think it is a deep seated desire for the freedom offered by the frontier.

    As the government closes around us the more the romance of being a frontier man in a new world, (even if that world is only new because the old world was devastated) becomes appealing.

  13. Per Wiki:

    Politically, he has been a registered Democrat since 1980,but states that he re-examined his views after being given a copy of David Horowitz’s book Radical Son. He now considers himself a “small government conservative libertarian”

    Plus no relation to Alec, and played a real creep in the otherwise uneven “The Patriot”.

    1. Still think “My Bodyguard” is the best movie he has been in.

  14. I watched the premiere, and it was terrible.

  15. Setting aside their supposed cultural implications, the new breed of post-apocalyptic shows hasn’t been all that good in my opinion.

    Revolution: Quit watching, don’t care that it got canceled.

    Falling Skies: Quit watching. The Daenerys Targaryen clone was the last straw for me.

    The Walking Dead: Still watching, but has rarely lived up to its potential. Excellent makeup effects, though.

    Under the Dome: Maybe a guilty pleasure, but the sub-plots can be pretty lame.

    The Leftovers: I actually like this so far, but I doubt it’ll stay interesting for more than 2 or 3 seasons.

    1. The Leftovers: I actually like this so far, but I doubt it’ll stay interesting for more than 2 or 3 seasons.

      There’s only one season, no more after this one.

      I love The Leftovers. It started slowly but has steadily picked up momentum over each episode.

  16. I like The Last Ship as an actiony TV series. I shared Brendan’s dismay at things like the lack of encrypted comm use but, while disappointing, it didn’t ruin things for me. I am glad they are making these and I hope they keep at it, though I hope they can avoid stumbling around with no story focus if they do.

    Speaking of avoiding that, I’ve also been watching Utopia, which is more of a just-pre-apocalypse show. They end each season in a way that could work as a series ending if it came to it, which I think is pretty clever (if they are doing it on purpose) since it makes it feel like there is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Love the use of color and music in the presentation, and the story takes a lot of interesting twists and turns. So much of the motivation in that story is driven by Malthusian logic which I don’t share, but that also didn’t ruin things for me (in fact, it adds a certain level of amusement).

    1. In contrast to Season 4 of Falling Skies, I’m looking forward to it more.

      Now that I know they’re going to head to the states (if the previews are right), I’m interested and skeptical about their reception.

      I see the captain unrealistically leading a mission with a squad of 4-6 that outclasses an enemy force of 20+ of similar armament. I see the enemy force being one dimensional portrayals/caricatures of anti-government groups with racism and sexism tossed in.

      Travis van Winkle will mildly impress me as he’s in a role that has the potential to break him just a bit out of the dumb jock he’s played in every other movie.

      Marissa Neitling
      will be the one I can’t pay attention to over my desire for nude scenes with her.

      Rhona Mitra I will continue to confuse with Bridget Moynihan and will continue disliking her as the doctor who just cannot be straight with people until it’s almost too late.

      I’m glad the Russian guy wasn’t left to be the one dimensional cold war-esque traitor.

      Adam Baldwin is in this. Great. What does he do again?

      I really hope they can find a derelict nuclear ship and transfer their ‘flag’ there.

  17. All I can say is,

    My loathing of ARPAT/ACUs are only exceeded by NAVPAT/NWU

    Because what the Navy really needs? Is something that makes sailors harder to find when they fall overboard.

    But hey! Looking ‘tactical’ is totally crucial…. when you’re onboard a fucking gigantic metal object in the middle of the ocean.

    1. Yeah, makes me glad I’m not in the Navy anymore.

      The new working uniforms were pretty clearly designed by people who don’t work on any high energy or rotating equipment.

      My only real beef with the utilities was that the pants weren’t very durable.

      And the old working uniforms (not to be confused with utilities) were pretty spiffy. The new service uniform looks like Marine charlies. Fuck that.

      I’m not certain, but I’ve read that the new NWU is to completely replace the poopysuit with some type of new coverall being allowed for certain shipboard duties (but not on subs, fuckers). That shit wouldn’t fucking fly with me. Were I still in I’d probably request discharge just because of that.

  18. Over 50 comments and nobody mentions

    Rhona Mitra


    1. I mainly know her as “the babe who was in that one Underworld movie without Kate Beckinsale.”

    2. I confused her with Bridget Moynihan the first time I watched the show.

  19. …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.

    It’s not fear or anxiety that things will fall apart. We know our old post WWII Cold War world order is disintegrating and we want it to. These aren’t fear based programs; they’re fantasy programs. We want this to happen because we hate the status quo. It’s the enjoyment of watching something burn without the guilt of having been the person to light the match. It’s about gritty purposefulness, about meaning. Modern life (or post-modern, if you prefer) is largely existentially meaningless. Shit get’s real when you’re knifing zombies.

    1. Perhaps the most perceptive comment of this thread.

  20. The writer seems to be reading too much into the show. I’m not sure a TV show has to be about anything. Sometimes you can put together a fun show that keeps people entertained without some profound message behind it.

    That’s what I find in The Last Ship. I enjoy it. Even the wife enjoys it. We watch it every week. Nothing wrong with just a fun show you can watch without having to think too much.

  21. “Like I said, it’s not great…”
    “…this is what TV looks like in the post-apocalyptic era?it’s sprawling, interesting, niche-focused, and surprisingly great.”

    — Suderman Computerman

    Make up your mind, dude!

    I agree that, had this show appeared in the 1980s or even 1990s, it would have been quite the hit and would have stood, head and shoulders, above most everything on TV in those days. That it suffers today by comparison with the Breaking Bads, Houses of Cards, Mad Men, and other sparkling examples of the 2nd Golden Age of Television is not its fault, and I think history will judge The Last Ship kindly. I am surprised that ratings aren’t through the roof, as much as TNT has been shouting from the rooftops (and yardarms, in this case) that this show is a great hit. I thoroughly enjoy it and make a point to watch it “live” whenever I can, or On Demand if I must.

    Practically my first thought about this show was that Eric Dane’s Captain must have learned what he knew about leadership from Kirk-era Star Trek episodes, especially the part about taking point on away team missions. But unlike either Kirk or Picard (who did stay on the ship and let #1 take point more often), this fellow is a family man with a strong sense of integrity, so the sparks between him and Rhona Mitra’s virus-doctor must never burst into flame: As a ladies’ man, he is no Kirk.

    (continued in reply post)

    1. (concluded from above)

      I’m glad Adam Baldwin has something to do that doesn’t involve so much scowling. I like his first officer character a lot, and especially enjoyed the episode, in which he had to take over as acting Captain while Dane’s character was, once again, running point on a dangerous away mission.

      With the season finale almost upon us, I look forward to seeing more of The Last Ship on TNT next year. That’s much fairer, well-deserved treatment than ABC gave The Last Resort, another, surprisingly similar show, which I liked a lot. At least Andre Braugher, who played the Captain in that series, landed on his feet in a new series that FOX views as a bona fide hit.

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