If we're lucky, each fall TV season brings with it a risk-taking drama that doesn't neatly fit into one category or follow the guidelines of an established formula.
The upside of these dramas -- if they're well-made -- is that we don't quite know what to expect; a sense of adventure and spontaneity pervades the stories they tell. The downside, even for the good or interesting shows, is that the creative team is also trying to figure out what works on the fly. Given how expensive most network dramas are and how many moving parts they have, refining the successful parts of a brand-new hourlong drama is akin to writing a paper on theoretical physics on the deck of a space station that is under assault.
In short, it's not easy.
As I noted in this roundup of my favorite new fall dramas, the pilot for "Last Resort" (premieres on Thurs., Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC) is very good, and it's appropriate that an hour of drama about a nuclear sub would have the heft and energy of a guided missile. The pilot, in which Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) leads his crew straight into a complex geopolitical crisis, knows what it wants to do and has a great deal of clarity, energy and purpose.
The next episode, which ABC recently made available to the media, is a less satisfying affair. Episode 2 tries hard to follow up on a wide array of storylines and deepen various characters, but there's so much happening in so many locations that a fair amount of it doesn't quite land.
Speaking of space, it occurred to me that the "Last Resort" pilot feels like a solid episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or even "Battlestar Galactica": There's a stalwart, courageous captain, a competent crew that includes a loyal second-in-command, a hard-assed veteran and a wide-eyed newbie; external threats put personal and professional relationships under pressure; the crew travels to new places with their own internal dynamics, etc. The second episode, however, is a more frantic affair, where world-building and character development are almost in competition with each other.
The good news is that the third episode is on a more even keel (which is somehow appropriate for a show about sailors), and there are some tense sequences and a few character moments that work well. And I'm in not discouraged by the show's early growing pains; the cast is still full of good actors, "Last Resort" displays an admirable amount of forward momentum and the hiccups along the way are just another indication of how many chances the show is taking.
The show's creators, Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek, are fully aware of the challenge they have set themselves in making a drama that's not like anything else on the broadcast networks, but in an interview, they talked about why they thought the show's themes of loyalty, sacrifice, power and rebellion would resonate with viewers who've made everything from "Lost" and "Game of Thrones" -- complex dramas that essentially synthesized their own formulas -- into hits.
"In the broadest strokes, I've always thought that our show began with the question of survival and moves to the question of power -- that idea of when you have to separate from a person you've been loyal to and take on your own power," Gajdusek said.
One of Ryan's prior endeavors, "The Chicago Code," waited until the end of its season to dive deeply into a serialized narrative and it still got canceled, but with "Last Resort," he appears to have doubled down on the idea of getting the audience hooked with an audacious opening episode and keeping them around with subsequent episodes that balance weekly and ongoing stories. Those are, after all, a few of the things "The Shield" did very well.
"Frankly ABC wasn't the only network that wanted this show, and the reason why we chose ABC was for this exact reason -- we felt like they were embracing serialized storytelling in a way that the other networks were adverse to doing," Ryan said.
Having said that, there will be a storyline each week that gets wrapped up by the end of the hour, and they said the hope is to knit a couple of home-front stories and the main submarine narrative into a unified whole over the course of the season.
There's much more from Gajdusek and Ryan below, and it's worth noting that this interview has been divided into two sections. The first section contains no spoilers and is designed for those who have not seen the pilot, which has been available online for a few weeks. The second section, which is marked by a spoiler warning, is for those who have seen the pilot.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Maureen Ryan: Other networks have gone very much in the direction of close-ended procedurals, but [ABC entertainment president] Paul Lee talked about how more serialized dramas sell well around the world and makes shows appointment viewing, even as the number of viewing platforms expands. So, with "Last Resort," how serialized can you go and how serialized are you comfortable going?
Shawn Ryan: Well, ABC can go very serialized, obviously. Look at "Grey's Anatomy."
Karl Gajdusek: We can go serialized, but I don't think we're going to try to do is a lot of cliffhangers. That's where it becomes ultra-serialized, and every episode, you have to have seen the episode before. We talk about Andre Braugher, Captain Chaplin's arc, and where he's going. Will he be this savior or lead [the crew] into damnation? Well, that's a serialized element. That means that the captain of Episode 10 is going to be nothing like the captain of Episode 1.
[We will do] these sort of contained episodes, especially at the beginning, where we can have a threat come in and by the end of the episode that threat is done, and yet we've taken the character a notch down their path. The cable sensibility ... is bringing the serialized side of a character [to the forefront, but the network part of the equation involves giving viewers] something that they can watch in an hour and not have to wait until the next hour to see it finish.
SR: A lot of people talk about trying to balance [serialized versus episodic storytelling], and we certainly tried on "The Chicago Code." This will be a more serialized show than that was. The events in one episode, I think, will clearly have more of an effect on the next episode than "Chicago Code." "Chicago Code" had sort of a serialized B story as related to [certain characters].
[With "Last Resort,"] the whole thing feels serialized, and you can do kind of soapy stories, for lack of a better term. Now, I reference "Gone With the Wind" as a soap. "Casablanca" is a love-triangle soap. So I don't want to demean what we're going to try to do, but you can do these relationship things that change in each episode. Frankly, ABC wasn't the only network that wanted this show, and the reason why we chose ABC was for this exact reason. We felt like they were embracing serialized storytelling in a way that the other networks were adverse to doing.
What is the biggest challenge of "Last Resort"? Is it integrating all these stories and locations?
SR: The biggest challenge is that we have such a large canvas. It's a wonderful challenge, but we have 10 principle characters -– 10 [series] regulars, I should say. We have three locations. Which stories to follow and which not, integrating them gracefully, dramatically, not defusing ourselves too much for the following week, [only getting bits and pieces] of each one would be the mistake.
KG: Yeah. It's interesting -- I don't know how you feel, but I preferred Season 1 of "Game of Thrones" to Season 2. And one reason is that Season 2, to me, felt a lot like they traveled a lot to different places in each episode. Everyone loved Episode 9 of Season 2 and that was the one that was one [location].
Exactly. Sometimes so many threads can diffuse the impact of any one part of the story.
SR: Yeah, so we have to make sure that we have these strong through lines that we can follow, so we don't get so big that we'll check in eight different places and none of them emotionally resonate.
From this point on, we discuss plot points contained in the first episode of "Last Resort," which was available online for several weeks. If you haven't seen the show's first episode, check back here Friday to read the rest of the interview, in which the show's creators also talk in very general terms about the kinds of stories that will be featured in upcoming episodes.
One thing that struck me when I was re-watching the pilot is that, well, America nuked Pakistan. That's huge, but we don't really see the fallout of that. Why isn't the world immediately at war, and are they going to strike back the next episode?
SR: That's some of the political drama of our show. Playing out why that happened, the ramifications of that is a huge deal for our show. Some people have asked us, "Is your show called 'Post-Apocalyptic'?" They are the most horrendous weapon on Earth, but they are a contained weapon, and the nuking of Pakistan with two nuclear bombs would not [necessarily start a war.] We talked with the Rand Corporation, we talked to a lot of [informed] people about this and the [consensus] is that the world would be in shock and horror, and different players would start to act differently. Would everyone go to war? No one really thinks so, and we don't really think so.
I guess 50 years of movies made me think that when that happens, boom, everyone else puts their hand on the button.
SR: There's a speech in the [pilot] that kind of covers this a little bit. There have been over 2,500 nuclear explosions in the world. There have been over 200 in the [American] desert, closer to Las Vegas than where our nuke exploded off the coast. That will be explained, but you're right. Paul Lee had very few notes for us, but one that he had was wanting to know what's going on in the world. We're not going to go to Pakistan and sort of deal with [what's happening there], but we're going to see [coverage] on TVs, we're going to see people talking, we're going to hear politicians talking about what's going on in the world.
Another thought I had related to a season of "24" where a nuke detonated somewhere.
SR: In Valencia, [California].
Which I guess no one missed, subsequently.
It took out Six Flags. It took out some really great roller coasters.
No roller coasters for you. But seriously, I felt like the season never recovered from that, because there was a big build-up to that bomb blast, but once you've set off a nuke on American soil, how do you rachet up the tension from there?
SR: Well, in that case, the villain set off a nuke, and I think it was a little hard to feel like your hero could be triumphant if the real heroes would have been preventing that nuke from going off.
Here, our nuke is shot off as a warning. Obviously, there are a couple nukes that some other sub has sent that have hit Pakistan. But our hope is that, OK, this is about the crew [of the sub that did not fire its weapon at Pakistan], which is now on this island. The sub will still be there. We're going to use the sub plenty. Are they going to survive? Will they get destroyed from the outside? Will they get destroyed internally? Will they survive? Will [XO Sam Kendal, Scott Speedman's character] get back to [his wife] Christine?
In the meantime, you've got Christine and [Pentagon contractor] Kylie back in the U.S., and they're on their separate paths that will eventually converge, and what are they going to find out? The interesting thing about "24" was that it was a character piece about the people trying to track down terrorists. You didn't really spend time with people whose lives were at stake. They were anonymous. This is a story about people whose lives are at stake, who hopefully we can get people to care about. If we don't, then we're going to be in the soup that you're talking about. If we do, then I think we're different from that "24" season.
KG: Our task is to find [out,] what are the stories that carry that much weight and tension. We're never going to jump right to the next episode and have [it be all about] global consequences. But survival and also justice, [those are the stakes].
And sometimes the alteration of a relationship or someone's status, a character's realization -- that can be the big "event."
SR: We have an episode that is currently scheduled to be our fifth episode that I think plugs into what you're talking about. It's a negotiation episode where some members of the U.S. [government] show up on the island to try to negotiate a settlement to all this. That doesn't sound terribly exciting, but I think it's going to be one of our most exciting episodes, [given] the way the script has come out.
People talking in a room can be very dramatic. I mean, how many "Shield" episodes did you have where people were locked in these interrogation rooms that were 8 feet by 10 feet?
SR: Yes, the idea of Marcus and Sam negotiating and some tension between Marcus and Sam and what's the right approach -- this is an example of finding those stories that don't contain nuclear explosion but contain a little mini-personal nuclear explosion between your two main characters. And [that can] be the payoff.
And if there's a fissure among this very small group of people, that's a huge deal. If 10 people have a problem with what's happening on the island and take up guns, that's huge.
SR: You just describe Episode 4. There's a sizable portion of the crew that had nothing to do with these orders [that were defied]. They were cooking dinner or they were working in the engineering room when all this went down. "Why should I be stopped from going home to my wife because you think you're George Washington?"
KG: This loyalty thing has become huge because it's a double-edged sword. Loyalty's a good quality, blind loyalty to a bad idea is not an admirable thing. And so when you feel a debt of honor or a personal debt to someone, and then they ask you to behave in a certain way -- this [dynamic] has become so essential to our show and it fuels so many of the dramas. I think the episode that Shawn is talking about, [it's about] leaving or going, standing at the Captain's side or getting a chance to get home. Where's your loyalty? Is it loyalty to your country or to an administration representing your country at the moment?
That's an interesting idea that "Games of Thrones" explores -- people have different layers of loyalty or differing allegiances to their house, their friends, their family. At certain points, they have to choose which is most important.
KG: In the broadest strokes, I've always thought that our show began with the question of survival and moves to the question of power -- that idea of when you have to separate from that person you've been loyal to and take on your own power. Those are some of the bigger stories of the second part of our season.
Your show has a lot of different strands -- there's the crew on the boat, there are the Navy SEALS the sub picks up, the island they all arrive at, the wife and the contractor on the home front. How do you make all that relevant and connected?
SR: Well, it stays relevant because what happened on the home front is what is fueling their continued isolation on the island, and their inability to get home. Remember, they didn't plant a flag and say, "This is where we would like to be." Essentially, these are people who would like to get home, and they'd like to figure out why their sub was fired upon and why people tried to kill them and why they were given a bad order. If that can be cleared up, they would be able to go home, and so the home front becomes very relevant. It is the source of that question.
KG: And also, the powers that be that want to get the sub back. If they look at Sam as one of the two power players there, then his wife is a leverage point to use. And so she becomes a very active participant in her own story where they want her to do something, they want her to exert leverage on Sam. What did they do to get her to exert that leverage? How did she resist? Does she know well enough to resist?
It seems like there is an element of ambiguity with Kylie, who is part of the military industrial complex. When this conflict begins, who benefits from it? Do you get into that?
KG: It's funny, because we got some pushback that we resisted early on, where they're like, "Why does she have to sell weapons? She should just be a reporter and start digging for information."
The classic B-story.
KG: And what we fought for and ultimately kept was the idea of not such an admirable character, at least to start out with. You know, she and her family have made a ton of money selling stuff that has facilitated the killing of people.
She's Tony Stark.
KG: Yeah. But we meet her on at a nastier point of that character's progression. [That] is a more interesting journey than someone who's just a do-gooder, try to be Woodward and Bernstein and also allows us to have her make some choices maybe that are unexpected. Maybe she's not always going to be so righteous and admirable.
As we leave the first episode, they're essentially AWOL at this point, right?
SR: Well, they're more than AWOL. They have turned against their nation.
KG: Yeah, we'll learn in [an upcoming episode] that formal charges are being filed, that they're essentially wanted for treason.
SR: They've declared themselves, like, we're here, [we'll defend our zone]. It's closer to war. I mean, they don't want it; it wasn't of their choosing.
KG: What Marcus really wants is a chance to go back and have a public trial. He thinks that the truth will come out and he'll be acquitted. Someone like Prosser, Robert Patrick's character, thinks that that trial will result in Marcus' conviction for treason. So it's more than just being AWOL, but it brings up a question: What about the cook in the kitchen when all this went down?
The people who had no knowledge of what was happening.
KG: You know, how does America view him, how does [that cook] view Marcus? Will he work to further Marcus' agenda? Will he work against Marcus' agenda? Will he work on his own to try to get away from these people and get home? You brought up the Navy SEALs. That's a whole different beast.
The difference between this show and a "FlashForward" and "The Event" and "The Nine" was that there's not a core mystery that the show depends on. This show is about a situation our characters find themselves in and it's very forward[-looking]. Having said that, there are a couple of mysteries that we'll get in to. What did happen in D.C. [in the political establishment]? What happened in Pakistan with these SEALs? Why is James [the lead SEAL officer] so upset at the end of the pilot? Why does he feel that he's responsible for this? That's a whole different thread that we'll get in to with those characters as well.
Two notes: Between this piece and what I've written here, I've given my early assessments of "Last Resort," and I won't be weighing in on the show again for a few weeks. Also, Ryan McGee and I talk about "Last Resort," as well as "Call the Midwife" and "Homeland," on the latest Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which is embedded below and also available on iTunes. Several other Fall TV podcasts are available on the Talking TV site.