Exhausted by Summer Prestige TV? Maybe You Should Be Watching ‘The Last Ship’ InsteadTNT
You may not have noticed amid Mr. Robot mania, but TNT owns the summer in scripted TV. Last year, the network ran up ratings on the strength of nine original scripted series. This summer, it’s upped that total to 10. And the flagship of its fleet is The Last Ship, a show about straight-arrow sailors from the creative team that also produced a show about outlaw sailors, Black Sails, for Starz.
The Last Ship, which follows the crew of a Navy destroyer that’s seeking the cure for a virus that wiped out most of the world, sticks to the same formula as Falling Skies, TNT’s other Sunday-night staple, which is nearing its fifth-season (and series) finale. Emblazon every poster with the name of a big-name director/executive producer (Steven Spielberg for Falling Skies, Michael Bay for The Last Ship); cast a likable lead from a network medical drama (Noah Wyle and McSteamy, respectively); make him a military leader; surround him with a mostly sexy supporting cast; and distract the audience from the dialogue with surprisingly good special effects (by basic-cable standards).
I almost abandoned The Last Ship four minutes into the first episode, when Adam Baldwin’s XO snarled that he “should’ve taken that desk job in Miami.” I groaned. My girlfriend groaned. We exchanged skeptical glances, like true prestige TV sophisticates. And then we kept watching anyway, because it was already on and the remote was more than a few feet away.
We haven’t stopped since. And like it or not, we live in a nation of Last Ship lovers and/or ineffectual channel-changers. I’m one of many millions of 25-to-49-year-olds who’ve made The Last Ship one of the most-watched series this summer, leading to last week’s announcement that the USS Nathan James would sail on into Season 3. So if you’re still holding out for higher-brow fare, should you consider slumming in The Last Ship’s wake? Here are several questions to ask yourself before deciding whether to enlist with TNT.
If the Ship Weren’t Technically the Last One, Would it Be a Dealbreaker?
I’m not trying to spoil the first season before you even decide whether to watch. I’m just asking: Would you mind very much if, hypothetically speaking, there were more than one ship?
I wouldn’t blame you for feeling a little bit Baytrayed. The promos are pretty clear on this point:
Big, empty ocean. Only one ship, which is clearly labeled “The Last.” On the other hand, there’s a lot of ocean out there that isn’t in this image, most of which is unexplored. We can’t really rule out other ships.
Maybe “last” is a white lie. It’s easy to imagine a single-ship show getting stale: With one ship, there’s no nautical tension, no ship ’shipping, no rooting to see those hunks of metal stop sailing in different directions and jump into dry dock together. Face it, multiple ships wouldn’t be so bad. But if you were mad when you learned that there was more than one man in The Last Man on Earth, proceed at slow ahead.
Do You Enjoy Jargon?
Did you notice how I just said “slow ahead” as if I’d served two tours of duty? Confession time: I’ve never actually been in the Navy. I learned how to sound like an old salt by watching one-plus seasons of The Last Ship, whose scripts are at least 18 percent acronym. OOD. CIC. CCS. TAO. ASTAT and ASROC. EMCON effing Alpha. If you’ve ever read a Tom Clancy book and were like, “Wait, what?” you’ll feel right at home here.
Aside from the acronyms, you’ll hear a lot of one-liners, but even the barked-out action staples clear the low bar of being better than something Frank Semyon would have said. It’s nice to have nuance, but sometimes you just want to watch someone with a crew cut ask in earnest, “What’s the status of the RHIBs?” And if the alphabet soup seems like a lot to take in, remember that you’ll only need to know three or four characters’ names. Everyone else you can call “Navigator Guy” or “Vaccine Skeptic,” which also decribes Baldwin.
How Do You Feel About Foreigners?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from The Last Ship about non-U.S. citizens, it’s that they’re mostly mass murderers with names like “Niels” and “Ruskov.” The good guys are almost all unaccented ’Muricans, except for a couple of commandos who compensate for their overseas origins by being easy on the eyes. You’ll know the bad guys by their “Oy, bruvvas,” “bloody hells,” and “Nic-uh-reg-you-uhs.”
Would You Miss Moral Ambiguity?
You’ll recognize The Last Ship’s big bads not only by their accents, but because they’re the ones rounding up survivors to burn their bodies for fuel and distributing virus-ridden teddy bears to uninfected children. The good guys are the ones who set the typhoid teddies (and water bottles) ablaze.
On the plus side, the absence of antiheroes and gray areas between good and evil spares us long, soul-searching monologues about the importance of preserving one’s humanity in an uncivilized world. The downside is that some of the handsome heroes’ jaws are so impressively square that they can barely move their mouths.
Will You Be Watching With Your Parents or Offspring?
If so, you’ll be spared the usual eye-contact-avoiding awkwardness that arises whenever there’s sex stuff onscreen. This isn’t one of those post-pandemic scenarios in which everyone is trying to repopulate a suddenly empty Earth. The Nathan James is a strict no-nookie zone, and crew-on-crew contact rarely progresses past heavy petting before someone cites regulations and ruins the mood.
Pack enough genitals into tight quarters, though, and there’s bound to be a collision. Sure enough, there is a slipup in the first season, but the offending parties are banished to opposite sides of the ship and ordered to lecture their shipmates on the evils of end-of-the-world consolation sex. In Season 2, the female officer involved in that incident is approximately 11 months pregnant without any sign of a baby bump.
Do You Want Your Dystopia Without the Boring Busywork?
All the hallmarks of the contagion genre are here: your hazmat suits, your oozing sores, your plaintive distress calls that go unanswered for the good of the group. At the same time, The Last Ship sidesteps a number of tiresome postapocalyptic TV tropes. There’s no futile search for the remnants of a military, since a Navy destroyer is the star. Out on the ocean, the ship is both an apex predator and a perfect means of transportation. There’s no need to hunker on Hershel’s farm, no life-threatening detour because a battery dies, a road is blocked, or a bridge is out. No one grows near-extinction beards or goes weeks without showers, and the foraging runs are kept to a minimum. The ship provides the necessities of survival, which allows its occupants to have hope. And they generally don’t do anything so stupid that they deserve to die.
On a Scale of One to U-571, How Excited Are You About Submarines?
If the sea is dope, exterior shots of submarines sliding through the murky depths are the dope dealer’s finest supply. In a world in which everyone shared my viewing habits, a montage of submarine footage from existing shows would have higher ratings than The Walking Dead. And The Last Ship gives us subs from every angle.
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Are you aware that many modern submarines have screens instead of periscopes? Did you know that smoking is now banned below decks? (Thanks, Bloomberg.) Fortunately, The Last Ship’s set designers pretended not to know those things, either. The show’s submariners are sweaty, grimy, and probably covered in anchor tattoos, which we can’t see because they dress like they’re auditioning for Das Boot. They smoke at their stations, and when they want to know what’s topside, they stare at mirrors in a metal tube, like Marié-Davy intended. Best of all, subs are boats, not ships, which preserves the premise. This is the direct hit to the brain’s submarine-centric pleasure center that Last Resort didn’t supply.
Do You Prefer Explosions or Stealth?
Trick question: There’s no need to choose. The Last Ship does deliver the fireworks that one would expect from a production that bears the Bay name.
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However, when you don’t have ships to spare, you can’t afford to confront every enemy. The captain doesn’t go in guns blazing if he can find a head-level hole and look before he fires.
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Nor does his crew engage the enemy head-on when they can take cover behind big backpacks.
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Does It Pass the Pete Townshend Worthwhile TV Test?
The criteria, as laid out in the first stanza of the Who’s 1971 single “Let’s See Action”:
Let’s see action
Let’s see people
Let’s see freedom
Let’s see who cares
If the song said, “Let’s see complex characters experiencing deeply emotional moments in situations that will stay cemented in your mind long after the closing credits,” it would probably be by Of Montreal, and it wouldn’t do a great job describing The Last Ship. But you’ll certainly see action. You’ll see people, many of whom will be defending freedom. And in spite of yourself, you’ll probably care enough not to reach for the remote.