Summer is not a season that lends itself to serious thought, or serious television. It’s why HBO leaves “True Blood” for the hotter months, why you’ll have to wait until September to find out what happens next on “The Good Wife.” And that’s fine. Sometimes, it’s just nice to kick back and watch a quasi-apocaplyptic military thriller. With viruses. And a dog.
Created by Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane, and executive produced by Michael Bay, “The Last Ship” features Eric Dane as the (unsurprisingly) hard-nosed commander of a military destroyer, and Rhona Mitra as a virologist in search of a cure for an epidemic that, just as the series starts, is about to sweep across the world. When Dane’s destroyer emerges from four months of training exercises and radio silence to discover that in their absence, things has fallen apart due to that epidemic, it’s the crew’s cue to begin struggling for survival in a new and changed world.
At least, that’s the goal of the series, and the premise is full of potential — “‘Walking Dead’ on a boat” is far from a hard sell, even without the zombies. Unfortunately, that potential turns out to be wasted opportunity, as instead the TNT series turns out to favor bland action and exposition-heavy dialogue over compelling drama.
Dane, serving as the show’s functional lead, is so hypermasculine that even after receiving an emotional message from his family, he can only shed one or two manly tears. It’s the sort of unflinching toughness that Sylvester Stallone has built a career upon, one that defies subtlety but lends itself well to big speeches and tough pronouncements. Defying basic concepts of science, at one point Dane literally uses his own body to restart a fuse, which blows him across the room. “Bad-ass,” the master chief says afterwards in admiration. “Bad-ass.”
Otherwise, no one from the cast really manages to stand out, even Adam Baldwin, who’s a familiar face to TV fans (“Firefly,” “The X-Files,” “Chuck”) but as the ship’s second-in-command doesn’t do much but growl into the ship’s intercom. On the plus side, in proud Seal Team Six tradition there is an official military dog on board the ship. He gets to go on missions. You do root for the dog.
“The Last Ship” is competent enough; its major flaw is its lack of surprises. You’ve seen each of these scenes before — the military moments borrowed from fare like “The Hunt for Red October,” the disease-centered drama coming straight out of “Outbreak” and “Contagion.” The modern touches, such as the co-ed crew and the openly gay bridge officer, are appreciated, but don’t make the action feel any more up-to-date.
To its credit, the action of the show does focus almost immediately on practicalities like gathering supplies, and resources are a key plot motivator over all three of the episodes made available for review. But that doesn’t keep much of the show from feeling rote. There’s a decent helicopter action sequence in the pilot, for example, but that’s because it’s not a proper conspiracy if there aren’t at least two unmarked helicopters involved. And just because all world governments are falling apart doesn’t mean we’re going to start trusting Al Qaeda or the Russians (both groups show up, guns blazing, in the first three episodes).
“Walking Dead,” no matter what you might think of it, has proven that you can depict end-of-the-world terror on a cable TV budget. So when the initial reveal that the world’s population is dying of a virus comes via a monologue from Mitra explaining what she knows, the dread of the situation doesn’t really come across. And the outbreak that’s destroyed society is easily one of the cleanest viral outbreaks ever captured on film — in general, little sense of the chaos on land ever manages to permeate the ship’s hull.
There’s a big question, an intriguing question, that hopefully “Last Ship” gets around to answering — what role does a military command structure play in a situation when the government itself is destabilized? It’s one I hope the show eventually delves into, because that would be new ground to explore, and an opportunity to really fulfill the show’s premise. But in the meantime, we’re stuck with raids and battle sequences that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Tom Clancy novel — and while Tom Clancy has his fans, all signs point to, in the end, a sad lack of ambition.