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Summer has always been the season for Hollywood to bring out its biggest spectacles, giving audiences larger-than-life experiences that can’t be replicated anywhere else. And that’s exactly what TNT has done with The Last Ship, bringing the tentpole action movie to the small screen, and sacrificing nothing by doing so. This is a series about a Navy crew working with a doctor to find a cure to stop a massive virus from killing everyone on the planet, and they’ll do anything and everything to see this improvised mission through. And that mission calls for an extreme amount of firepower, explosives and all-around badassery. Who needs myriad sideplots bogging things down? Here are five reasons why the tension-filled The Last Ship is blockbuster television and could be the best new show of the summer.
Michael Bay, Michael Bay, Michael BayOf all the director stereotypes that exist, few are more exact than “Michael Bay likes explosions,” and The Last Ship is a fine example of that stereotype at work. Even though Bay’s role is as executive producer, he got together with TNT very early on in creating this modern adaptation of William Brinkley’s 1988 novel, and also worked very closely with the Navy and the actors on set to make this project feel as genuine as possible. Bay's fingerprints are all over The Last Ship, and it’s in the best way possible.
The characters that writer Hank Steinberg has scripted here – Commander Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), XO Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin) and Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra) – aren’t asinine like Transformers characters or ego-driven demi-gods like the Bad Boys duo; these are real people dealing with an impossible situation. They are living in a Michael Bay-scaled universe where gigantic guns are shooting helicopters out of the sky, and it’s all just as gloriously big and blockbuster-y as a feature, but with none of the weird aftertaste that a Bay movie can leave one with. It’s not the kind of series that makes it to TV often, and action fans will hopefully be impressed.
This Apocalypse is Zombie-Free and In Real TimeIn the past decade, popular fiction has been completely taken over by undead hordes as a nameless threat to take over the world, but The Last Ship is thankfully headed in a different direction, with a manmade virus at its core. Admittedly, global pandemics also get used a lot in fiction, but that’s because they’re truly legitimate threats, and The Last Ship producer Stephen Kane worked with virologists to keep the story grounded in reality. “All the respect to zombies and vampires,” he told me at a recent press junket. “We’re like two mutations from it actually happening.”
Kane and Steinberg prefer not to use the term “post-apocalyptic” as a descriptor, because the crew of the USS Nathan James are very much dealing with the world’s downfall as it’s happening. (Is calling it Apocalypse Right Now too on the nose?) The goal is to find a cure that can stop the plague from spreading even further, and in that respect, The Last Ship is also about hope. Because maybe, just maybe, some of the infected 80% can find relief with a cure.
There is Lost-Lite Mystery to Complement the ActionFor at least the three episodes that I watched, The Last Ship works like a procedural drama, only instead of cops solving crimes, it’s a Navy crew shutting down enemy threats with giant weapons. Beyond that, though, there is the mystery of the virus itself: where did it come from, and how can it be stopped? Viewers will see early on that not everyone is who they claim to be, with survivalist desperation sinking in all over the planet. A lot of the show’s distrustful unease comes from Dr. Scott, whose motivations to create a cure are somewhat suspect, although it’s possible she’s the good guy, and everyone else is the problem.
The Last Ship’s first episode, “Phase Six,” was directed by Jack Bender, the TV vet who produced and helmed episodes for mystery-driven shows like Alias, Alcatraz and, you guessed it, Lost. “That show,” Kane told me, “in many ways inspires a lot of what we’re doing in terms of the genre and mystery element.” I don’t think we need to worry about the USS Nathan James stumbling upon an island with a lighthouse and a hatch, but maybe they'll discover something just as strange based in reality. Action projects don’t always branch their stories out to incorporate the unknown, but The Last Ship does a fine job of it. (I’m guessing the virus was created by old Mr. Featherbottom, the curmudgeonly owner of the abandoned amusement park.)
Breakneck Pacing and Non-Stop MomentumAny series that starts off with billions of people dead and/or dying has an uphill climb in making the central, smaller story match those stakes. But it doesn’t take long at all for The Last Ship to ratchet the story forward after introducing the main cast. Because supplies on the ship aren’t meant to last through the end of the world, Chandler must figure out how to attain the food and fuel needed to keep moving long enough to give Dr. Scott time to formulate a cure. That means the USS Nathan James has got places to go and people to meet, and not all of those people are cooperative. This is not a series where people sit on their asses talking about the weather.
In the first episode, the crew scavenges another vessel, albeit one more corpse-filled, and the second episode takes them to Guantanamo Bay, where things get pretty bullet-heavy. In The Last Ship, every single destination is a potential gold mine or death trap; there are no certainties and no guidelines to follow to make sure Chandler is doing the right thing. It’s almost impossible to guess where the plot will take them by the time the tenth episode airs, but Mitra was blown away by the season finale and told me it was “really twisted,” and that they like twisted. Could Bay have figured out a way to make the entire planet explode? We’ll see.
The Excellent Cast Brings These Characters to LifeAs Chandler, Eric Dane is the wry, stoic decision-maker the ship needs, able to surpass his own desires to find his family in order to lead this group to safety, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. It’s easy to believe in him as a leader, and there’s no questioning the dedication shown by Slattery, Lt. Danny Green (Travis Van Winkle), his secret girlfriend Lt. Kara Foster (Marissa Neitling) and the rest. Both Chandler and Slattery learn that at least some of their family members are alive and temporarily safe, yet both are determined to continue on with the larger mission, putting mankind’s future as their top priority.
Later episodes of The Last Ship will go into the characters’ backstories in some way, giving viewers even more reasons to root for them. In particular, Mitra says that we’ll learn exactly how “this lone wolf scientist who dances to the beat of her own drum manages to spend her whole life dedicating everything she has to viruses and strains.” Personally, I’m really hoping we find out that Adam Baldwin’s Slattery used to be a renegade badass on a spaceship called Serenity. I don’t see these backstories getting bafflingly complex at any point, but they don’t need to be, because The Last Ship is an action-packed show about the future, and making sure humanity has a place in it.
And hopefully The Last Ship will have a place in your Sunday night TV viewing. It premieres tonight, June 22, on TNT at 9 p.m. ET.