The curse of the single-season TV show is terrible indeed. Firefly is probably the most celebrated example, but there are others – great shows that never found their audience, or found them way too late. There is a version of the curse, however, which is even crueler. Shows that you mistakenly think had only one season, when they actually rolled on for many more.
I vaguely recall Murph raving about some TV show a couple years ago, maybe set on a warship, possibly at the end of the world. That was all I recalled, that and the crucial detail that it had been cancelled after 10 or 12 episodes. It sounded like the sort of thing I’d normally watch, but when The Last Ship appeared on the front page at Stan, and I thought, "Oh, there it is," I decided instead to spend my attention dollar elsewhere. Why set myself up for the disappointment. Having been left dangling by the UK show Survivors, I wasn't in the mood for another tease.
Turned out Murph hadn't been talking about The Last Ship though. He'd been done wrong by The Last Resort. The latter was set on a nuclear submarine. The Last Ship is a guided missile destroyer. "Confusion," to quote ELO's Mr Jeff Lyne. "It's such a terrible shame. Confusion – you don't know what you're sayin'."
I'm still not sure how the world went down the dunny in Resort, but on The Last Ship it's an ebola-like virus. Glancing coincidence – Survivors is also an End of the World story with a flu-like plague doing the hard yards of cutting down the potential list.
The captain and crew of the USS Nathan James avoid the collapse of civilisation (and billions of exploding bloodsacks) by virtue of having been sent to the Arctic for a top-secret weapons test. Except it's not a top-secret weapons test, a couple of scientists who tag along with them are doing even more secret research on the superbug.
That's about all the set up you need to know. The Nathan James returns from its four-month mission to find the world is falling apart and whenever they set foot on dry land they have to wear NBC suits and stay clear of the infected. Props to the producers for not firing up the zombie cannon at this point. It must have been tempting to make this The Walking Dead On Water.
It’s not. After an admittedly wobbly pilot, the series really settles down into a propulsive hybrid thriller. (Seriously, just ingnore the cheesier dialogie, cardboard characterisation, and a few continuity issues in that first ep. Everything gets better). The contagion threat is always there. You've got rogue Russians chasing them for a cure (and it is SO GREAT to have the Russians back as the villains of a military story. We missed you so much, Ivan!). There is the always exciting collapse of civilisation to deal with every ep, and the producers never lose sight of resource scarcity as both a constraint and a driver for the story engine.
It's the writing and character work that have really impressed me so far. With 200+ sailors on the ship, the crew could become ciphers. Redshirts. But they don't. The supporting cast is large, and they get some great dialogue and story arcs - more than enough to make the investment of caring about them. The headline characters (after a slightly wooden start) are all very well realised.
The writers perform a neat trick of borrowing tropes from a whole bunch of genres, so that they're not just recyling mil-fic cliches every week. There are lots of WTF plot moments, but nothing bizarre or outlandish. Simply surprising.
I'm up to episode six of season one now, and as I understand it the third season has just commenced in the US. This is what I love. A new story to invest in, and lots of chapters still ahead of me. If you're looking for something along these lines I am happy to give it a big thumbs up. Streaming now on Stan.