matt zoller seitz

Seitz on Last Resort: A Sub Thriller Executed With Military Precision

Photo: Mario Perez/ABC

When I was 13, I watched my uncle, a former Marine who’d served in Korea and Vietnam, strip, clean, and reassemble a hunting rifle. He might as well have been shuffling a deck of cards.

I thought of my uncle while watching Last Resort (which premieres tonight at 8 p.m.), a new ABC drama from Shawn Ryan (The Shield) about a nuclear submarine crew that goes on the run rather than obey questionable orders to nuke Pakistan. Written by Ryan and with a pilot directed by Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale), it never makes a big deal of its excellence. It just sketches its premise, plot, characters, and themes in deft strokes, always giving you enough information but never too much, always adding new layers and twists. They could put the show’s logo in the dictionary as an alternate definition of “professional.”

Andre Braugher stars as the skipper of the U.S.S. Colorado, Capt. Marcus Chaplin. Scott Speedman plays his XO, Lt. Commander Sam Kendal. As anchors of an innately preposterous tale, they’re perfect. They’re larger-than-life but somehow grounded in emotional reality. You can envision both men turning the key to launch nuclear missiles or buying groceries. As Kendal, who momentarily assumes command after higher-ups sack Chaplin, Speedman projects decency, intelligence, and focus. He’s squared away.

And Braugher? A treasure. He’s a verbal steamroller when he needs to be, and every syllable he speaks has the weight of conviction behind it. But there’s a kindness in his face, and an undertow of melancholy. The pilot hints that Chaplin isn’t entirely happy with his career path — that professional resentments might partly motivate his decision to take the sub to tropical island of Sainte Marina, a NATO communications center, and engage in a standoff with the U.S. government. Will the pilot’s hard-edged military action vibe (part Crimson Tide, part 24, with hints of conspiracy) give way to something along the lines of Mutiny on the Bounty or Lord of the Flies, with Chaplin succumbing to a martyr complex, even delusions of godhood? I’m picturing Braugher’s dome mired in half-light à la Kurtz, flies buzzing in the background.

The supporting cast is just as strong: Daisy Betts as Lt. Grace Shepard, the sub’s navigator, brisk and unaffected; Robert Patrick as Joseph Prosser, the chief of the boat, a leathery old sea dog who’s always ready to make the tough, nasty choice; Sahr Ngaujah as Julian Serrat, a local smuggler and nascent warlord who fancies himself king of the island and doesn’t take kindly to the sub crew usurping his power; Daniel Lissing as James King, a Navy SEAL whose team was picked up by the Colorado after a botched mission, and who is content to drown his sorrows in booze.

Given its pedigree, I expected Last Resort to be proficient and engaging, but I was pleasantly surprised by its sense of geopolitical reality. This story is farfetched, to put it mildly, but credible real-world details help sell it. Men and women comfortably co-exist on board the sub, and everyone seems mindful of propriety, but there’s a bit of knowing flirtation too, plus moments where the testosterone overwhelms a scene and the women seem unsure how to react without confirming sexist stereotypes. And there’s a great scene between Serrat the island criminal and King the SEAL that illustrates the complacency of American power: It’s Serrat’s island, and he and his men aren’t inclined to give an inch to a lone commando, but they have to back down to him, not just because of his icy confidence (expertly played by Lissing) but because King treats his Americanness and whiteness as trump cards. The show’s only weak links are a familial connection between a member of the sub’s crew and a power player back in Washington, and a cartoonish supporting character — Autumn Reeser’s relentless, sexed-up defense lobbyist — who seems to have wandered in from ABC’s Scandal.

But these are nitpicks. This is one hell of a debut, and the last seven minutes are brilliant, hitting emotional notes that you might not expect. I have no idea if Last Resort can top its sensational maiden voyage, but I’m on board regardless.

TV Review: Last Resort