Last September, the television show Last Resort premiered on ABC. The show starred Homicide alum Andre Braugher as the captain of the nuclear missile submarine USS Colorado, given orders to nuke Pakistan. The Colorado is attacked by American forces after Braugher’s character refuses to fire. A chain of events is set in motion that leaves Colorado in control of a nearby tropical island, attempting to expose the truth of the US government’s involvement in the attack.
Despite a favorable critical reaction, the ratings were never where they needed to be. As a result, the show was canceled after thirteen episodes. For a look back at the show, I am joined by my esteemed colleague, Jeff of Slazenger1. After Monday’s series overview and yesterday’s discussion of what worked, today we look at what did not work for Last Resort.
Jeff: My list of things that didn’t work about the show (for me anyway) is definitely longer than my “praise” list, but I’ll try to keep this to a reasonable length. One of my first big problems with the show was that it never took the time to give us anything worthwhile on the mainland/US side of things. Sure we got awful Kylie stories and dead-end Christine stories, plus we got small mentions of an unstable but highly approved president, however, we never really had a sense of the other side of the major conflict of the series. Yes, the island stories featuring infighting and trouble with the locals were okay, but I don’t think we ever got a true “big bad” for the series. Curry (Jay Karnes) did a little bit, but not enough to make me think he was the villain. I think the writers dug themselves into a hole and were taking their time trying to get out of it, incorrectly assuming that these one-off stories (with consequences that were often conveniently forgotten/brushed aside by the next episode–rape riots anyone?) were going to keep us entertained until we got to the true meat of the show’s central conflict.
My second beef with the series was how poorly it wrote and treated its female characters. I know it’s the nature of American filmed entertainment to be “guy heavy” (I’ve mentioned the Bechdel Test on my blog before). In most cases, TV writers’ rooms are guy heavy too. This appears to be true of Last Resort as well (4 of the 13 episodes appear to be credited to women). Kylie (Autumn Reeser) was awful, and written like a man, at least at first, which did nothing for her character. Christine initially had precious little to do but worry about her husband (Speedman’s character), which made sense, I suppose. Cortez (Jessica Camacho) was a poor man’s Michelle Rodriguez who couldn’t even do her CIA mole job right (which ended up working better for the series anyway). Tani (Dichen Lachman) and Sophie (Camille de Pazzis) were fine, but ultimately under-served by the story, particularly the former. There’s also a fair amount of violence toward non-combatant women, including the execution of two family members of the Colorado crew by the Pakistanis. The lone bright spot was Grace “Lt. Bitch” Shepherd (Daisy Betts), who actually grew and developed from a put-upon female Naval officer to a stronger, more decisive character with a harder shell. Of course, they did have to add that little bit of backstory about her being raped sometime in the past, then they never got a chance to explore it any more deeply.
There are several more avenues I could explore, especially regarding the pacing, over-plotting, random bad writing and awkward structure of some of the episodes, but I’ll bring up one last thing I wish would have been done differently, and that’s the show’s use of the Colorado itself. I get that this show was probably never meant to be like Star Trek on a submarine, plus it needed to justify being filmed in Hawaii, but they could have made better use of the Colorado. Think about every submarine movie you’ve ever seen. They almost all take advantage of the submarine as not only a setting, but they also treat it as if it is another character within the world. I feel like Last Resort missed that opportunity to make us really feel some connection to this boat and, by extension, her crew. It’s not like they didn’t have opportunities. There were at least 2-3 episodes that would’ve benefited from better use of the Colorado. A “bottle episode” midway through the season, featuring the Colorado confronting or evading an enemy ship (with a minimum of land-based story) could have slowed this show down and revitalized it. Alas, nothing like that ever came to pass.
Perhaps I’ve picked a few things that weren’t glaringly obvious to harsh on, but I’ve already touched on some of my other issues in our first exchange. Even though I have more examples of “bad” than “good” when it comes to the show, I feel like both bad and good were present in most episodes of the show (often in equal measure). There were 3-4 good to great episodes of the show, maybe 2-3 that were duds and the rest fall somewhere in the messy middle. What’s your take on “the bad” for Last Resort? I have a feeling I know one thing you’ll hit, but I’m interested to see how hard you come down on everything else.
Patches: I liked the show more than you, right?
Jeff: On the whole, I’d say yes.
Patches: I thought the show was decent overall, right?
Jeff: Of course. You could do worse with your 13 hours (or 13 40-minute installments).
Patches: So why did it take me over two hours to write four paragraphs of positive things to say?
Jeff: Probably because you got lost daydreaming about Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton taking you into “the box” for a little “interrogation.”
Patches: There’s a joke about “stroking” waiting to be made, but I don’t think anyone would catch it. Anyways, when we decided to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the series, everything that immediately came to mind was bad or ugly. I couldn’t agree more that it’s common even for great shows to struggle finding their footing. The difference between great shows and Last Resort is that great shows learn from their mistakes. Last Resort didn’t.
It seemed like Last Resort continually rammed its flaws down our throats week after week (I should probably revise this to make it less erotic, right? [Ed note: Leave it in…that’s what she sai–nevermind], waiting for us to stop seeing the problem? Ignore it? Who the hell knows?
One of those repeated mistakes was a complete lack of knowledge about basic military tactics and technology, which is the issue I assume you expected me to mention first. With how loudly I complained about it throughout the series, I wouldn’t blame you for expecting this to be my biggest issue with Last Resort.
It was certainly the most irritating to me, but that’s just because I started reading Tom Clancy in middle school. I can understand and forgive sacrificing technical accuracy for the sake of entertainment and drama. That said, there were some really huge issues, including:
1. Using anti-surface missiles to attack submarines
2. No understanding of how sonar works (on a naval show!)
3. Using a screwdriver to modify a torpedo to be less powerful, as though a torpedo is full of gunpowder you can just empty. Oh, and it only took five minutes.
4. SEALs using two helicopters in broad daylight to attack terrorists who have hostages
5. Torpedoes that travel underwater at the same speed as missiles travel through the air
6. No concept of modern naval strategy or even the basic capabilities of any ship on the show
If you can’t afford a military advisor for the show, here, let me help you. While that was irritating, the far bigger problems were with execution and pacing.
I mentioned earlier that the show did a great job setting up conflicts. Unfortunately, they failed to execute on most of them. All of the drama back in the United States was undercut by Christine’s blandness and Kylie’s … just all of her. Serrat, the island’s local tough and perhaps most interesting antagonist, was undercut by constant losses or victories that had no lasting consequences.
Although I gave the show credit for dealing with weighty issues, the show always took the easy way out. In “Big Chicken Dinner,” the rapist engineer was found innocent, but then revealed the truth to Shepard with Chaplin eavesdropping nearby. They tried to have their cake (due process and reasonable doubt with he-said-she-said evidence) and eat it too (rapist get punished). No tough decision had to be made whether to keep a maybe-rapist on the crew or whether his position as the only guy capable of running the reactor made him too important to hold accountable.
In “Damn the Torpedoes,” Chaplin and the Colorado square off against the USS Patrick Lawrence. The episode tried to deal with the issues of patriotism and loyalty. Could Chaplin or the rest of the crew attack the Patrick Lawrence in self-defense, killing Americans in the process? In the end, SEAL James King and Lt. Shepard modify a torpedo (somehow) to deliver only a fifth of its payload. The modified torpedo hits the Lawrence. Their bluff called, the Lawrence withdraws. We didn’t even get to see the explosion, which would have dispelled the illusion that no Americans were killed. Last Resort dipped its toes into the water of moral complexity, but never jumped in.
Lastly, and most egregiously, Last Resort had the worst pacing of any show I’ve ever watched. We could be charitable and describe it as the show trying to do too much, but if your food is burnt, how much does it matter if it’s because the cook tried making four dishes at the same time or if they are a shitty cook? Instead of adopting an A/B structure where the A plot eats most of the time and the B plot changes the pace, they took a less structured approach, which backfired terribly.
In Episode 7 (“Nuke It Out”), there were four (FOUR!) potential A plots (prisoner interrogation, COB’s drug crusade, firing key investigation/morale, conflict with Serrat) and two B plots (Shepard/King relationship, Kylie/Christine adventures at home) in one episode. “Damn the Torpedoes” tried cramming four A plots (Kendal/COB’s mutiny, Chaplin/US ship, Chaplin assassination, coup in DC) into 40 minutes. Instead of having two very good episodes, they chose to make one crappy one.
Last Resort tried to deal with everything and everyone in every episode. As a result, nothing was done as well as it could have been. Character development was never prioritized. Do you remember when we were six or seven episodes into the season and we didn’t know the names of several of the leads? If we don’t know the characters, we can’t care about them. Overall, the show placed quantity ahead of quality and that does not make for good television.
Jeff: Thank you for bringing up all of those things, as I just didn’t have room for them. Really, the points you make are great examples of just how they kept getting the show wrong week to week. My three major “bad” issues probably could have been resolved over time, had the series lasted for more than one truncated season. Your issues (ignorance of military technology aside) were ever-present, and as such, were the biggest reason for the series’ struggle to produce consistent, quality episodes. The pieces just weren’t all in place. Of course, who knows if we can correlate our problems with the low ratings earned by the show. After all, some critics liked the show from top-to-bottom. Whatever the reason, Last Resort is canceled, over, done. I’ve said enough in this conversation that you should have a pretty good idea of how I feel about the show, so I won’t say much more. I am glad I watched if, if only for the opportunity to pick it apart with you.
Patches: Couldn’t agree more. Strangely, I’m sort of glad they canceled the show, especially since they had time to create some closure with the finale. If the show would have went on as it did, we both probably would have dropped out at some point. Frankly, I think the show holds up a lot better as a 13-part miniseries than as an attempted television series. I’m not sure how those things are different, but I think the show concluded well enough for me to be pleased with the show as a whole.
Well, Jeff, thanks for coming by! I did enjoy the series, but I probably enjoyed rehashing everything with you far more. Both I, and the several people who eventually read this in its entirety, are thankful for you stopping by to lend your considerable knowledge. I had a blast and hopefully we can do this again!
Jeff: Thanks, Patches. I’m glad we took the opportunity to do this and put a button on our 74 pages of discussion of Last Resort. Now we just need to find something else to talk about.
Patches: Before we go, Jeff and I present this list of superlatives, loaded with our favorite, least favorite, best, and worst somethings throughout the series. Enjoy! Tomorrow!
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