So, have you felt it yet? Do you feel it right now? The sense that something is missing from your weekly routine, a little bit of awesome, apocalyptic, well-acted, largely accurate and respectful naval porn?
Well, I’ve been feeling it. After a season that was either exactly as long as it needed to be (without all the fluff or pointless episodes that British series avoid with their shorter seasons, but which are endemic to American 22-24 episode seasons) or way, way too short (c’mon, you know you wanted more, as long as its the right kind of more), The Last Ship has left us. How was the inaugural season? Where did it soar and where did it fail? And what’s in it for you if you care either way?
Characters: The Goods: I gotta hand it to the two primary stars, Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra. Cap’n Crunches and our Doctor Va-va-va-voom-virology were very well played, carrying considerable gravitas as well as being very easy on the eyes. I was totally unfamiliar with Eric Dane prior to this (not a big Gray’s Anatomy watcher), but I had seen Ms. Mitra in a number of films prior to this, and was already a fan. I think she rather classed up the whole affair. Eric Dane played Captain Chandler as a man I’d want to follow, making him decisive, strong, and still caring for his crew. Between the writers and his performance, we got ourselves a high quality CO. And he did righteous anger very well. That being said, the Tom Chandler role could have been slightly more nuanced. We did have scenes of vulnerability and doubt, but he seemed a little too good to be true sometimes, all lantern-jawed hero and never the bereft father and husband, or the CO far out of his depth having a moment of frustrated weakness where he explodes on a subordinate that simply didn’t deserve it. But that’s a minor point. As for Rhona, she played Dr. Rachel Scott as strong, fierce, intelligent, (a little haughty perhaps), and with both a sense of pride warring with frustration at having been doubted by her community. I really, really appreciated that she never struck me as Denise Richards playing Dr. Christmas Jones in that excreble James Bond flick. I believed and appreciated Rhona Mitra in her role (and she can still be my Doc anytime).
In regards to highpoints among our supporting cast, both in terms of writing and performance, my favorite was Tex (John Pyper-Ferguson), followed closely by everyone’s favorite XO, CDR Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin). Tex was just a joy to watch, providing some much needed comic relief while also being a badass. Plus he had some moments of depth, vulnerability, and sorrow, especially as he began to realize his love would remain unrequited. As for Jayne/Casey/XO Slattery, the great Adam Baldwin, I love that dude. He played this role with much less humor and a great deal more doubt and uncertainty than I’m used to seeing from him in roles, but that was definitely the right tone to take here. In fact, I could have done well with a lot more conflict and friction between him and Chandler. There were moments, but they were always fleeting. I also wish, like with Chandler, that they would have seemed more affected by the apocalypse going on around them. Still, whether he was shooting terrorists with a 5 inch gun, or overriding his CO and continuing to look for him against orders, you knew that Slattery (the ex Chicago detective????) was the guy you wanted in your corner.
Lastly, I have to give props to our villains, Alfre Woodard, Ravil Isyanov, and Jose Zuniga. They were all played well, with the only unfortunate point being that there was no over-arching villain as a Big Bad for the season, and they never had enough screen time.
The Less Goods: First of all, there were no bad performances here. That’s why this is “Less Good” than “Bad”. But there were some roles that — whether due to their writing or the way they were played — they just bugged me and did not contribute as much as I might hope in a perfect show. First of these is the CMC, Master Chief Jeter, played by the very good Charles Parnell. The CMC just seemed to be too much of a saint, but instead of Jesus, he put his faith in Tom Chandler. That’s just a bit over the top, and unlike any CMC I’ve ever met. It got a little old, and frankly I thought it was building to a good death for him during the episode where he volunteered to have the vaccine tested upon him. Then there is Quincy (Sam Spruell), who was just a whiney, badly manipulative, weak weasel. As a villain he was lame. As a protagonist, he was creepy. Maybe that’s exactly what they wanted from him, but I just didn’t see Rachel Scott putting her faith in him. And then we have our main points of ire: our Two Sexy Lieutenants Being All Sexy Together. Danny Green (Travis Van Winkle) and Kara Foster (Marissa Neitling) got better as the series went on, mostly because they were separated from one another, but every “relationship” moment was like nails on a chalkboard. Were these characters designed to mark off some screenwriting checklist block requiring a romance? When they were doing their jobs, they were perfectly acceptable. When they interacted or fought or made-up, though, it was full of suck. Sorry, guys.
Lastly, I’ll repeat a plea I made several times before: Where are all the goddamn enlisted roles. The USS NATHAN JAMES is an officer-fest, and that’s not good. They make up only about 10% of the crew, but they make up 99% of your speaking roles. There are stories to be told there, stories that will echo with your audience, and not just the one or two shoehorned in weak roles you did have for them. I fully expected to have a strong antagonist among the crew for Captain Chandler, someone who realizes with the demise of the US and the Navy, they didn’t have to follow Chandler’s orders any more. Is a mutiny story aboard a ship a trite cliche? It can be, but it was still a chance to bring conflict and realism and more enlisted participation into the story. We had weak officer counseling! So where were the 10% of the crew that end up taking up 90% of your time? Where were the fistfights and/or suicides among a crew under the stress of the end of the world? Why was there never a fragging incident or a CO’s Mast that busted down an undisciplined crewman? And not to be negative entirely, where were the scenes of a crewman showing up an officer, of an enlisted person being selfless, or inventive, amazing Chandler and earning his respect and gratitude? Because that stuff, good and bad, is what happens aboard ship every single day. But all we got was a chess-playing cook and a gunner’s mate that wanted to time out of service during an emergency. Kinda weak sauce, writers.
Wow, looking back at a lot of that last paragraph, there’s also a lot of points which apply equally to plot so . . . .
Plot: The Goods and Less Goods: The Last Ship deviates significantly from the novel of the same name, and that is to its benefit, as that source novel is quite dated and involved the hopeless situation of a nuclear war vice the threat of a viral apocalypse which allows for the crew to positively affect things. We have all the big stakes here: global apocalypse, a small crew on one ship against the world, pandemic, lost loved ones, a last desperate chance at a hopeful conclusion, external attacks, action, explosions, and conflict, conflict, conflict! If the story had ever paused, or had an episode to spare, I’d suggest they could have added a decompression episode, a Sunday at sea or a Crossing the Line ceremony to show the crew letting loose a little and having some nice character moments, but maybe next season. Like I said before, the episodes and the season were very tightly written with no extraneous eps (except for one . . . ). The setup in the pilot was PERFECT, the conclusion was DAMN GOOD, and they kept the tension well-ratcheted for the most part, resulting in some middle-of-the-season eps that were equally amazing. I had my favorites, as I’m sure you do, which is the gist of the contest I mentioned earlier, and more on that later.
Were there things I would have changed? Of course! Continuing with what I mentioned in Character above, the show could have benefitted from a Big Bad to carry through the season instead of episodes where sometimes the only antagonist was bad fortune and there situation. Now, many of these episodes were necessary, but if we could have had a hint of an overarching Antagonist as well, I’d have done it. Maybe introduce Alfre Woodard earlier, make her their cheerleader at home, so when she turns out to be L’il Miss Hitler, it’s even more jarring. Maybe give Roskov a scene or two in more episodes, even if the Russians were nowhere near the main action. I’d also have had more incidents of desperation or interactions with other vessels, where the crew as a whole was forced to confront the deadly realities of the disease, though the episodes where that did occur were much appreciated.
Only one episode actively pissed me off, and I think you’ll know it if you’ve been reading these. That one ep exemplified all my fears of a Navy TV show, mostly because that was the one time the writers and consultants truly failed in terms of Naval Realism.
Naval Realism: The Goods: They actually filmed about 85% of the series on actual US Navy destroyers, and that setting shined through. The tech jargon was spot on for the most part. All the pieces and parts were there and they were properly used, properly manned, and properly referred to. This was a very respectfully crafted show, and almost reaches the high point of Naval Porn (which I consider a term of endearment). This show (I hope) will be a good recruiting tool for the Surface Navy (which is my Navy). I usually had a happy smile on my face while watching this show. so Thank You for almost getting everything right.
The Less Goods: A lot of the plot tropes they used had Captain Chandler (and the XO and CMC) in the center of the action, which is ludicrous. The Skipper doesn’t get to go on many, if any tactical away missions. They also gave the NATHAN JAMES superpowers, allowing her to shrug off missiles, rockets, and bullets without damage, to operate over the span of entire oceans without fueling or provisioning, to hack into satellites and facilities with impunity, and to stash her helicopter in a third hangar that simply doesn’t exist. But all of that is allowable when compared to the season’s only true stinker episode, Episode 4: “We’ll Get There” (But you’ll probably give yourself a lobotomy before you do, so you can stand all the STUPID). I won’t rehash it here, but I AM TOTALLY FINE IF THEY COMPLETELY RETCON HOW THE SHIP WORKS during the next engineering-centric episode, or, alternatively, if THEY NEVER AGAIN HAVE AN ENGINEERING-CENTRIC EPISODE.
A reminder, cast, crew, producers, and writers: I’m available as a consultant, and I work CHEAP.
Contest: So, that’s it. I LOVED the first season of The Last Ship and can’t wait to see how the plot develops and the characters grow next season. I can only hope they keep with the show’s central conceipt and STAY ON THE DAMN SHIP, instead of becoming a knock-off of Jericho or The Walking Dead, fighting the apocalypse upon land, with only passing references to the NATHAN JAMES. And I want to thank you all for sticking it out and reading my reviews. I’ve never enjoyed such high traffic on my blog before.
As a way of thanking you, since I don’t have any Last Ship swag, I do have some sci-fi navy fun to offer. Here’s how it goes: Out of the season’s ten episodes, which were the best? Give me your top 5, in order, on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, in the comments below, or via e-mail. The first person(s) to match my list (or get closest) will win a free copy of my military sci-fi novel A Sword Into Darkness, in either e-book, trade paperbook, or audiobook (your choice)!
So, what are your top 5 episodes and why!? Enter early and play often! And THANK YOU ALL AGAIN.