The main promotional image for ABC's new series Last Resort is a rather sobering one: an American flag floats crumpled in the ocean, surrounded by darkness but illuminated by rays of light from the surface. The stars and stripes are recognizable, but covered in darkness. It's not an image that appears in the first three episodes of Last Resort, but it's thematically appropriate. After all, the series focuses on the crew of an American submarine who disobey dubious orders to begin a nuclear war and are instead fired upon by their home country. In response, they flee to a nearby island and set up their own nuclear state there until they can discover what exactly led to their mysterious orders and how they can prove their innocence.
The flag can be seen to represent the crew, who are adrift with darkness closing in at all sides. But, on a deeper level, the shadowed banner can also be seen to represent the questions the crew face. What does it mean to be an American when you're all alone in the middle of the ocean? Are you still an American when your own country wants you dead? Is there any salvation from the ever deepening quagmire in which they find themselves sinking?
Last Resort (which premieres tonight, September 27, on ABC) is a brave series. It's one of the first few concrete examples of network television finally moving in the direction of the superior storytelling of its cable brethren. It's not a high-concept series, for one thing: it takes at least a few sentences to explain what the series is about, and even a longer explanation might require clarification. The plot isn't convoluted; the fact is that even at its most basic level, Last Resort is a more complex series than most other network fare.
It's also reassuring that the show's first season order, despite being one of the most anticipated new shows, is only thirteen episodes, which aligns the show's structure closer to that of a cable outing than the standard 24-episode fare of a network. This also seems to promise that Last Resort won't be burdened with the filler that has sunk promising network fare in the past. There's hardly a wasted movement in the first three episodes of the series. For a series with a premise as urgent as this one's, it's important that Last Resort not spin its wheels. Refreshingly, ABC seems to acknowledge that. Of course, it's entirely possible that the season could be extended to include more episodes, but let's hope not. Last Resort works best at its leanest and meanest; anything else is just excess.
Of course, all this praise for Last Resort doesn't mean that the show has completely overcome some of network television's flaws. While the show's actors (especially Andre Braugher) are excellent, the characters often come across as a little one-dimensional. In the first three episodes, characters are defined as being either noble or insidious, with any appearances to indicate otherwise being written off as misunderstandings. Every time one of our heroes' motives is questioned, they provide an impassioned defense that completely exonerates them in the eyes of the audience. For a series as consumed with answering (or at least posing) ethical questions as Last Resort is, there needs to be more moral ambiguity. After all, the audience is supposed to ponder these questions, not to simply wait for the characters to give the correct response.
Despite its flaws, though, Last Resort is a surprisingly enticing network series that uses its unique premise to pose interesting philosophical and patriotic questions. Hopefully, the series will soon start to provide us with answers that are just as complex.
Last Resort premieres tonight, September 27, at 8/7c on ABC.