I can tell you nearly everything you need to know about The Last Ship, a TNT summer series premiering tonight, in four words: executive producer Michael Bay. The mastermind – I’m using the term very loosely here – behind the big-screen Tranformers movie franchise has earned a reputation for making movies in which bombastic action routinely trumps nuance and character development. While other directors focus on exploring the subtle emotional hues of a drama, Bay prefers to use crayons.
While he didn’t co-write or direct The Last Ship, this big, noisy action thriller is very much in keeping with Bay’s preferred style. The story opens about four months ago, as Cmdr. Tom Chandler (Eric Dane, Grey’s Anatomy) and his second-in-command, Mike Slattery (Adam Baldwin, Chuck), embark with their crew of the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James for what they believe to be a four-month top-secret series of weapons tests in the Arctic. Also aboard the vessel is Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), a paleomicrobiologist (yeah, I didn’t know that was a thing, either), who tells Chandler she’s tagging along to look for bird-borne microbes in the polar ice.
After the four months are up, however, Chandler is surprised when he receives orders for the ship to stay put until further notice. He becomes far more suspicious when Rachel, while collecting ice samples, and her party are attacked by a squadron of Russian military helicopters. Once everyone is back aboard the ship, Rachel reluctantly tells Chandler the whole truth: She’s desperately seeking the “primordial strain” of a mystery virus that has caused a devastating pandemic. While deaths had been limited to cluster groups in Africa and Asia when their ship departed four months ago, in the interim billions have died, and an estimated 80 percent of Earth’s population is infected.
With millions more dying by the day, world order has collapsed. The president of the United States is dead. No one is answering the phones at the Pentagon. Governments have fallen. As one politician tells Chandler by videophone, civilization no longer is made up of allies and enemies, just desperate individuals willing to do anything to survive.
Rachel is mankind’s best hope, if she can devise a vaccine against the mystery plague. But she knows the virus may be mutating, so if she does come up with a serum, will it already be obsolete? There’s no one she can reach in the medical community to give her updates.
As central premises go, this one is a doozy: These people are trying to save the world, yet exactly what kind of world are they saving? If The Last Ship had been willing to explore some of the myriad moral and ethical ambiguities the story invites, especially as considered by characters of some real depth and complexity, this series might have been something very special.
Unfortunately, we’re left with cardboard heroes trying to outfox stock cartoon villains: al-Qaeda terrorists! Those damn Russkies! Velociraptors! (OK, I made up that last one, but then, I’ve only seen the first three episodes).
The Last Ship is what it is, a handsome, deafening, fast-paced video game, where characters we care little or nothing about get thrust into one deadly situation after another, usually while grabbing one another by the shoulders and screaming, “YOU DON’T GET TO PLAY GOD!” or something like that. Taken on those terms, it’s definitely not boring, and John Pyper-Ferguson even manages to interject some critically needed quirkiness into the poker-faced proceedings as a former Guantanamo guard who joins the team in episode two. His name is Tex. As, of course, it would be.
If The Last Ship were a meal, it would be a bloody steak and a tall glass of scotch. If that’s what you’re in the mood for on a hot summer night, it must might hit the spot.