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'Last Resort' Review: A Tense Confrontation On The Island

10/25/2012 09:41 am ET | Updated Dec 25, 2012

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Now that "Last Resort" (Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC) is a few weeks into its maiden voyage, it's time to check on the progress of the submarine drama.

The good news: This week's episode is focused, suspenseful and enjoyable. If it's not quite as gripping as the pilot, that's no insult, given that the first hour of "Last Resort" was unusually well-made.

If you've been wavering in your commitment to the show or wondering whether to check it out, Thursday's taut episode not only provides an excellent showcase for guest star Jay Karnes, who plays the wily Secretary of Defense, it supplies some good examples of what "Last Resort" can do when the drama is firing on all cylinders: There's good acting among expansive vistas on land and tense moments with the sub crew at sea.

The slightly less good news: It's hard to determine whether Thursday's outing is a one-off that happened to come together nicely or represents a general course correction. I hope it's the latter, but we'll just have to see.

"Last Resort's" sprawling narrative, which follows events that take place after the crew of a nuclear submarine goes rogue, takes place in several locations and has to service a large number of characters. Its ambition is laudable, but since the pilot, it has suffered a bit from what I call "Game of Thrones"-itis. The first half of that HBO show's debut season was pretty rough going, despite some solid performances and pretty visuals. There was just so much heavy lifting involved in getting various stories up and running that the narrative often veered into draggy or tangled territory.

"Last Resort," thank goodness, doesn't have to condense hundreds of years of history in its opening episodes, but it does have to make us care about a large array of characters, and that process has been hit or miss. My feelings on the matter can be summed up thusly: If you're going to put the camera on anybody but Andre Braugher, you'd better have a really good reason to do so.

The stories that take place on the sub have been generally better than everything else on the show, in part because Braugher is so magnetic as sub captain Marcus Chaplin, but also because the sub's claustrophobic quarters have generally been used well in a number of confrontations. Various island-set and home-front stories haven't fared as well, sometimes because there isn't enough time spent on individual characters, and sometimes because the characters and their storylines feel like place-holders for events that will occur some time in the future. (Why was the French lady collecting soil samples recently? I found it hard to care.) As is still sometimes the case in Westeros, there's just so much going that not all of it lands.

As was the case with the "Blackwater" episode in "Game of Thrones" Season 2, Thursday's "Last Resort" largely works because it focuses the main action on one storyline, uses its best characters well and gives less important characters interesting things to do. If I may use a few more groan-worthy nautical metaphors, it doesn't try to cover the waterfront -- it goes deep.

Karnes and Braugher spend much of the hour trying to outmaneuver each other: Karnes' character, Defense Secretary William Curry, arrives on the island occupied by the sub crew in order to broker their surrender, but Chaplin obviously has different ideas. Chaplin and his XO, Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman) also don't necessarily see eye to eye, and the series of tense conversations that unfold are enjoyable to witness. (And it's hard for a fan of quality television not to view the Chaplin-Curry showdown as Dutch vs. Pembleton, in honor of the memorable characters they played on "The Shield" and "Homicide," respectively.)

Speaking of maneuvers, a loosely connected storyline involving the submarine put two marginal characters to good use. Daisy Betts, who plays an earnest young officer, and Daniel Lissing, who plays one of the Navy SEALs whose mysterious mission probably put the whole geopolitical mess into motion, have to team up in order to complete a repair, and that storyline ends up having a good deal of welcome urgency. I hope Betts' uptight character continues to get more shading, and that details about the SEAL mission come to light in coming weeks; watching Lissing moon around Dichen Lachman's character and wallow in her bar has been one of the show's weakest elements.

Finally, the two least urgent stories -- the one involving Autumn Reeser's defense contractor and Jessy Schram's wife-on-the-homefront -- start to come together this week, which is a good thing. Those characters have felt pretty far from the main action and have made me wonder if introducing so many characters up front was too risky a gambit.

As I said in this introduction to an interview with "Last Resort" executive producers Karl Gajdusek and Shawn Ryan, the episodes following the pilot have been choppy. (I'll spare you a metaphor about rough waters.) But I'm still on board, in part because Braugher is so good and in part because the storylines appear to be growing more connected and the secondary characters somewhat more compelling. If "Last Resort" can pull off more episodes like Thursday's "Skeleton Crew" (a clip from which is below) and fewer like the scattered "Blue on Blue," it'll earn my loyalty.

Several people on my Twitter feed have expressed varying levels of frustration with the show, and I hear where you're coming from. I'd love to hear from you after tonight's episode (on Twitter or in comments) to see whether you are going to stick around.

"Last Resort" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.