Monday, August 25, 2014

"The Last Ship" - Season One (2014)

Starring Eric Dane, Rhona Mitra and Adam Baldwin
Created by Hank Steinberg and Steve Kane
Based on the novel by William Brinkley

After spending four months on a recon mission in the Arctic, the crew of the USS Nathan James is ready to return home. When a landing party led by two scientists, Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra) and Dr. Quincy Tophet (Sam Spruett), is attacked by Russian forces, Commander Tom Chandler (Eric Dane) risks breaking radio silence to contact his superiors. Chandler is horrified to discover that in the months they've been out of contact, the world has fallen into chaos. A disease called the Red Flu has ravaged Earth's population. Governments have fallen, including the United States.

Chandler also discovers that Dr. Scott knew about this, and that her mission, secretly, was to locate primordial strains of this deadly flu virus so that she might figure out how to create a vaccine for it. Unfortunately, somehow the Russians knew what Dr. Scott was looking for. Now, hunted across the world's oceans by mad Russian Admiral Ruskov (Ravil Isyanov), Chandler and the crew of the Nathan James are mankind's only hope.

I'll be honest: I didn't expect much out of the Michael Bay-produced "The Last Ship," a summer action series on basic cable's TNT network. The ads were everywhere; TNT promoted the hell out of this series on air and in movie theaters all through the spring and summer.

Halfway through the season, I found myself with some extra time on my hands and binged the first few episodes ondemand and to my surprise, I didn't hate it. It's not great, but it's not bad either. It's a well produced and entertaining but entirely disposable summer series that fed my hunger for some post-apocalyptic fiction.

The characters aren't particularly deep or even all that distinguishable from each other. I've now finished watching the first season, and there are a number of them whose names I can't even recall. The most lively of the bunch is Tex (John Pyper-Ferguson), a private security contractor the crew meets in the ruins of Gitmo in an early episode. He's he one who seems to be having the most fun, he's jokey and lively where everyone else is mostly just business.

Chandler is your usual heroic leader. The show rarely asks more of star Eric Dane than to look intense, shout orders and give inspiring speeches to the crew. He's the moral rock of the show, the always-good commander who often seems little more than an advertisement for the US Navy.

So it's hard to care about a lot of these very cardboard characters. But there's something sort of refreshingly old-fashioned about having all these obviously good characters going up against obviously bad ones. There are no real shades of gray in this show; it's all very straightforward, which works for this particular show.

Whenever the crew of the Nathan James hits the beach, the settings become your typical post-apocalyptic fare. There are sick people everywhere, and the more, erm, entrepreneurial of the populace have created their own little fiefdoms and scrounge for supplies. You've seen it all before, though the show's budget is high enough that it never feels cheap or like someone just tossed some trash in the studio parking lot and called it the end of days.

Even the show's plotting is mostly predictable, too. Each episode the ship gets closer to creating the cure for the Red Flu while discovering more about the collapse of society around them. There's a cool twist at the climax of the season finale, but it's really the ballsiest move the show makes all year. Again, there's nothing wrong with it; the plotting of the series isn't bad, but it's not all that original, clever or daring.

Where the series excels, however, is in its naval action and suspense sequences. I've never been in the Navy, but it all feels very authentic. That is, the show makes a big deal of people shouting orders and coordinates and technobabble, and no one stumbles over all the technical stuff. The editing and effects are crisp, giving some real oomph to all the shootouts and battles. Some of the show's best moments involve the Nathan James squaring off against its Russian counterpart, a recurring threat throughout this first season.

The season ends on a cliffhanger, and the series has been renewed for a second season in 2015, so fans will get another dose of naval action next year. I found the show to be an entertaining way to spend a few hours, though it's far from the best TV has to offer. It fits in rather well with the summer blockbuster mold, which makes sense considering it has Michael Bay as a producer and Jonathan Mostow ("Terminator 3", "U-571") directed the pilot.

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