When I first heard the premise for TNTs new original series “The Last Ship,” I feared the worst. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned a convoluted action piece akin to ABC’s late, lamented submarine drama “The Last Resort.” That show labored through 13 low-rated episodes before the network scuttled it in deep waters.
Since TNT had ordered only 10 episodes of “The Last Ship,” I was able to draw solace in the knowledge that cable viewers would be subjected to three fewer hours of this disaster at sea.
Now, four episodes into the inaugural season of “The Last Ship,” I’m prepared to walk the plank or pay whatever penance Poseidon deems necessary. TNT has won me over with “The Last Ship” — hook, line and sinker.
On a technical level I never doubted “The Last Ship” would impress. Feature film veterans Michael Bay (“Armageddon,” “Transformers”) and Jonathan Mostow (“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Surrogates”) are among the shows executive producers; Mostow also directed the pilot. But “The Last Ship” works on other levels as well.
The series is set aboard the USS Nathan James, a naval destroyer that literally houses mankind’s last hope for survival. A pandemic has wiped out a majority of the world’s population and it’s up to the crew of the Nathan James to safeguard Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra, “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans”), a virologist on the cusp of developing a vaccine to fight the deadly virus. This requires Capt. Tom Chandler (Eric Dane, “X-Men: The Last Stand”) and his crew to maneuver their way through a world in which all sense of order has broken down. Simultaneously, each of them must also cope with personal fears and uncertainty over the fate of their loved ones.
Scott is portrayed as an intensely driven scientist with her own way of doing things, which often puts her at odds with the equally bullheaded Chandler and his executive officer Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin, “Firefly.”) She and Chandler have found common ground, but initially Scott’s only confidant was her assistant, Dr. Quincy Tophet (Sam Spruell, “Romulus”). But it turned out he was in league with the Russians (they were holding his family).
Scott is also struggling with her own personal demons. Back in the early stages of the pandemic when she’d made her breakthrough toward a possible cure, she elected not to share her findings with the international community. She chose instead to pursue the vaccine on her own, a decision that led her to the Arctic aboard the Nathan James.
After a four-month communication blackout was lifted, the crew discovered that the world had been devastated by the virus in the interim. Making matters worse, they also learned they were now being hunted by what remains of the Soviet military in an effort to seize Scott and her research.
There’s a lot of high-wire tension, warfare and heroics in “The Last Ship.” The concept is well-worn yet topical; when you read news about the Ebola epidemic in Dakar — which is now the largest outbreak in world history — you realize that such a scenario is within the realm of possibility.
The broadcast networks could learn a lesson or two from TNT’s handling of “The Last Ship.” In an era when just about every new hour-long series arrives with a convoluted backstory or mythology, “The Last Ship” plays like a straightforward, old school action-adventure. That’s not to say the producers don’t throw viewers a curveball now and then; that’s simply a matter of good storytelling. But it’s refreshing to see a show that establishes clear cut goals for its characters each week and then follows them to either victory or defeat.
TNT seems to be using “The Last Ship” as a showpiece to demonstrate that it can produce first-rate original programming with the best of them. The network certainly spared no expense, budgeting the series in the area of $2.5 million per episode. It also scored two 505-foot-long guided missile destroyers from the U.S. Navy for filming (the Halsey and the Dewey).
Only time will tell what grade “The Last Ship” receives from viewers. But TNT certainly deserves an A for effort.