There’s no question in my mind that most TV sci-fi dramas have some precedent in “The Twilight Zone.” Rod Serling’s stark, brilliant anthology series, which ran from 1959-63, messed with all kinds of cosmic possibilities – about existence, about childhood, about time and space, about good and evil, about politics, technology, and the future. There were humans, aliens, robots, mutants, dreams, and apocalypses, the last of which are particularly popular these days in primetime. From “Lost,” “FlashForward,” and “Fringe” to “Revolution” and ABC’s fascinating new “Last Resort,” TV is still toying with the what-ifs and watch-outs explored in TV’s great uber-ancestor.
“Last Resort” recalls the more political episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” as it raises distrust of government to a fever pitch. The non-supernatural drama, which was created by Shawn Ryan of “The Shield,” is of a piece with “Homeland,” “Rubicon,” and the many other series that have invited us to question institutional authority. It’s about the USS Colorado, a nuclear-missile submarine – and this is a brief summary of a far more complex concept – that’s ordered to bomb Pakistan. The commander, Capt. Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher), questions the directive, which has come from an American station in Antarctica, and that triggers a series of events that end with Marcus declaring the Colorado a rogue state.
The premiere, tonight at 8 on Ch. 5, contains far too much incident, including but not limited to an attack on the Colorado, the political manipulation of the crew’s families at home in the States, and some conflicts involving a Navy SEAL (Daniel Lissing) at the NATO station on the fictional island of Sainte Marina where the sub will finally dock. It’s like watching a full day of “24” in an hour. I can easily imagine a more deliberate version of “Last Resort” that spreads all the action from the first episode across the entire first season. But still, there are worse problems than ambition and a glut of ideas. All of the material crammed into tonight’s episode is both intriguing and tensely directed (by Martin Campbell, “Casino Royale”), raising a host of strong possibilities for the show’s future.
Plus, well, Andre Braugher. The actor from “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Men of a Certain Age” is riveting here as Marcus, a man with honor and a stubborn streak. Braugher is the kind of performer who can make nobility and integrity better than tolerable, subtly deepening them with self-doubt and fear. He helps amplify the themes of the show, which are broad and include choosing country over family, checking leadership, and keeping faith despite the evidence. You can see Marcus’s thinking run across Braugher’s wide-open eyes. As his loyal second in command, Sam Kendal, Scott Speedman from “Felicity” is also a bonus. Their scenes are set amid the claustrophobia of the submarine, which heightens the drama of their mentor-student bond. Sam is committed to Marcus’s decisions, but he is distracted by thoughts of his wife, Christine (Jessy Schram), who is trying to defend his name back home.
There are at least eight other substantial characters on “Last Resort,” including an employee of a major defense contractor (Autumn Reeser) and a Pentagon official (Bruce Davison) whose daughter (Daisy Betts) is on the Colorado. It’s a little dizzying. But Braugher and Speedman are vivid enough to get you through the premiere, and I’m betting the others will become clearer as the season develops.
If the season develops, of course. Viewers appear to have mixed feelings about the networks’ serial mysteries, with “Terra Nova” dying off while “Revolution” has just begun with some ratings ballast. “Last Resort” is a thriller on the order of “24” as much as it is a puzzle, so I’m hoping the show will surmount audience mythology burnout. It deserves a fair chance to unfold.