Writer Aaron Sorkin once plainly spelled out the difference between writing for television and writing for film: Television is “all middle.” Where a film can start out with an explosive opening and dramatic finale, the second act need only tie the two together. On TV, it’s the burning questions in between that are addressed for minutes, hours and years to come.
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And so emerges the problem with ABC’s new drama, “Last Resort.” The premiere episode is satisfactory, but already feels overly drawn out in order to sustain the premise.
“Last Resort” focuses on the crew of the Colorado, a U.S. Navy submarine in the Indian Ocean. When the Colorado receives orders to fire a nuclear missile on Pakistan, Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher, “Men of a Certain Age”) refuses until the request is confirmed by the White House. In response, another U.S. vessel strikes the Colorado, implicating Pakistan as perpetrators, igniting a war and leaving an entire American crew for dead.
That’s certainly enough trauma to maintain a season or more, but it’s complicated in decidedly unhelpful ways. First, there’s the fact that the Colorado survived the attack and the entire crew are now victims of a monumental conspiracy. Then there’s the super-top-secret technology on the ship, which none of the crew seem to be aware of but is known to its stateside inventor Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser, “No Ordinary Family”), who explains crucial aspects of the technology while wearing distractingly little clothing.
And let’s not forget the fact that Chaplin tries to elicit an explanation from the U.S. government by actively launching a nuclear missile at Washington, D.C. It lands in the countryside, causing no harm, but the fact remains that he attacked his own country just to prove a point.
The Colorado resurfaces by an exotic island populated by a host of ethnically ambiguous individuals, meaning that nothing about the setting ever feels authentic. From this remote location, Chaplin broadcasts an ultimatum: He demands the truth about the attack while threatening to launch the remaining missiles on anyone who even tries to approach the island.
The best thing that can be said of “Last Resort” is that it brings up the age-old question of what justifies violence in the name of peace. Chaplin and Co. are standing up for honesty, an undeniably noble pursuit, but from the moment he threatens to use firepower, the circumstances grow uncomfortable.
When Chaplin assumes command at the end with full confidence that the U.S. government will follow his orders, there’s a palpable swelling of ego that reaches beyond the screen and out into the audience. As much as we are predisposed to root for the crew of the Colorado, Chaplin comes off as power-hungry and more than slightly crazed.
It’s not that “Last Resort” isn’t well-executed, but the show seems to think rather highly of itself. Ambition and intelligence are welcome in today’s television climate, but there is such a thing as aiming too high too soon. At least J.J. Abrams has earned the expectation of people watching his over-hyped pilots. But when an ad for “Last Resort” boasts the slogan “honor in defiance,” it seems like a leap of faith when we know so little of the defiant.
Despite moments of riveting drama, “Last Resort” establishes too many narrative goals in its pilot episode. The cast, while composed of respectable actors, is too extensive; the premise, while thought-provoking, is “all middle.” The episode ends in a state of suspended drama that may not withstand the fall pilot season unless a better crew takes over the helm.