Fun fact: a network drama hasn’t won the coveted Emmy for Oustanding Drama Series since 2006. The counterterrorism thriller “24” won that year for its electrifying fifth season. Since, three cable shows have won—HBO’s “The Sopranos” for its final season, AMC’s “Mad Men” for its first four seasons, and this past Sunday Showtime’s newcomer “Homeland” (a show that shares a skeleton and two executive producers with “24”) joined the club. Why is it so difficult for a network drama to break through?
The easy answer is because the cable platform allows for more ambition, more risk-taking, more unconventional storytelling. It’s highbrow, it’s contemplative, it’s unsettling. A wider audience is unable to swallow that, by and large. Besides “24,” the past decade has seen a few outliers, dramas with teeth that missed out on accolades or wasn’t gobbled up by the masses in the kinds of numbers the network execs enjoy. NBC shipped critical darling “Friday Night Lights” of to Direct TV, and “Lost,” while inconsistent in quality, won for it’s debut season, but was afterwards relegated to the shadows except for some supporting actor wins. Generally speaking though, the chasm between critical success and ratings has never been greater. The most popular shows are either predictable procedurals like “NCIS,” competition reality shows like “American Idol,” or NFL games. Does this mean the American people don’t gravitate toward compelling concepts and complex characters?
Shawn Ryan and Karl Gajdusek are gonna have a go at it anyway. Shawn Ryan is a respected writer and showrunner. His last effort, “Terriers” on FX, was cancelled after one season, but it captured the hearts and minds of the same critics who adored his gritty crime show, “The Shield.” In other words, he brought some pedigree to Gajdusek’s vision of a show about a nuclear submarine. Also upping the ante, the highly regarded, velvety-voiced Andre Braugher. He commands your attention with his booming yet reassuring baritone, and he’ll put butts in the seats by magnetism alone. The chief concern surrounding this show though, is whether this high-level premise will sink under the pressure, or emerge as the network drama that makes the Academy take notice.
Unlike the shows that rack up the numbers week after week, there’s no easy formula for a show like this. Even the media that share it’s DNA—”Lost”, Tom Clancy novels, “Lord of the Flies” and countless submarine-set films like “The Hunt for Red October” would be baffled by this show’s scope. Even in this riveting pilot there’s so many loose threads and numerous moving parts that’s it’s overwhelming in some electrifying and worrying ways.
Let’s submerge into the action. After showing the show’s emblem of the tattered flag in water we’re shown a skiff helmed by Navy SEALs cruising rapidly toward an undisclosed location with a brutally injured soldier on board. A sub, the U.S.S Colorado surfaces, bringing aboard the rescued SEALs. They are greeted by Chief Joseph Prosser (Robert Patrick, a prolific character actor), followed by Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) and XO Sam Kendal (Scott Speedman). Kendal asks about the heat that was coming down on the SEALs, but they brush him off. This first act establishes the culture of sub life as well as how these characters’ roles are defined. A female officer by the name of Cortez is asked by XO Kendal if she has been harassed while on board the vessel, but she just mocks the procedure of sensitivity checks. Officers Lawrence and Stern talk about Lieutenant Grace Shepard (Daisy Betts) behind her back, trivializing her rank and belittling her military prowess. Both Grace and Sam witness this. Sam reports the indiscretion to Chief Prosser stating they were “busting Grace’s balls.” While the Chief chuckles at this he assures they’ll be reprimanded.
In Captain’s quarters, Sam asks Marcus what’s going on back home, and we’re given a glimpse of what seems to be a volatile political environment where the President is being subjected to an impeachment vote. The captain begins an anecdote about President Reagan firing his entire air traffic control. His cabinet told him he’d appear crazy. He pointed toward Russia and said that’s exactly what that bastard should believe. Marcus ends the story saying if there’s one absolute truth about being the one with his finger on the button, it’s that the world should think he’s crazy. They drink to being thousands of miles away from it all. The captain also reveals that he recommended Speedman for a high-level position at Naval command in Virginia. This is so he can be with his beautiful wife Christine (Jessy Schram). He implores him to take a desk, start a family.
Elsewhere on the boat, the Chief tells Grace that he will give his officers a week of latrine duty. He adds that it’s not about him being a woman, it’s about earning respect. She snaps back that instead of calling her by her first name he will address her by rank (she’s higher than he is) and that they will serve two weeks latrine duty. Back on “the con” Grace informs the captain they are crossing the equator. They blast “La Bamba” and dance. Amid the chaos, Sam smiles and sees Marcus saluting him across the con. Suddenly, the party is broken up by a missile fire order.
Now, the intensity is ratcheted up to unprecedented levels. It’s a life and death scenario of the grandest scale. This reviewer, personally, knows his character well enough to know I’m not fit for the military. I question authority too much, I don’t do what I’m told absolutely. There’s no way I would be able to follow an order that I didn’t believe was right. But this is what is asked of Captain Chaplin and XO Kendal. They authenticate the order to hit Pakistan with four nuclear warheads, insert their keys into the firing computer, but both seem weary. Marcus asks Sam to say what they are both thinking. Why the Antarctic channel? Apparently, the order was sent via a secondary channel that according to protocol is only used in the event the D.C channel has been hit first. They decided to turn on the TV and see if there’s evidence of an attack. Instead, they see “Hannah Montana.” Marcus calls up national command hoping a voice he’s familiar with will confirm the order. He’s reluctant to kill 3.4 million Pakistanis without that assurance.
Here we cut to Kylie Sinclair (Autumn Reeser), a knockout in a red dress, “talking dirty” to her date. They are evidently heading to the bedroom for a roll in the hay. Along the way she describes the specs of the U.S.S Colorado, how powerful it is, how destructive a warship it can be. Then she brags that it’s one flaw, it enormous magnetic signature, would be eliminated by the hardware she would sell the government. She mounts her date, breathing heavy with arousal when she receives a text—472 Chaplin. She dismounts and rushes out leaving her poor date to relieve himself.
The captain gets a call from the Deputy Secretary of Defense. Marcus recognizes his voice, but is confused as to why the Secretary wouldn’t speak with him himself. The Deputy Secretary relieves him of command, giving XO Kendal control of the vessel. He is handed the phone, and Grace (I guess the third in command) inserts Marcus’ key into the firing computer. Both her and Sam are about to turn, but Sam insists the order be sent through the proper channel. The SEALs aboard descend on the crew, pointing their guns at Sam and Marcus, threatening to shoot if they don’t see the order. Before that scrum can be resolved, the Colorado is fired upon.
It’s frantic after that as they rescue the injured SEAL from sickbay. In the process one SEAL is killed by a pressurized bolt striking him in the temple like a close range bullet. The tension is diffused again by a cut to an island in French Polynesia. Here there’s an early warning station for NATO. They’ve seen the missile fired and identify it as an American tomahawk. Here’s where it gets tricky. A man named Julian (Sahr Ngaujah) drives through the gates and drops off a gift of what looks like Nutella for Sophie, the French leader of this station.
Sam requests his captain to join him on the con. He needs his help in rallying the troops, but instead he’s “chilling out to Mozart.” Marcus seems scorned by D.C’s 472 order to relieve him. He asserts they have a new captain now. Sam takes the mic and gives a comforting speech to his crew that they will go before the proper authorities in time. For now, they need to find a safe place to hide so they can head home. A crew member confirms it was the U.S.S Illinois that shot at them. Chief Prosser demeans his new captain by questioning his strategy. He says they should wave the white flag, but Sam believes that would only make them an easier target.
Two uniformed men visit the home of Christine Kendal, Sam’s wife. She immediately assumes the worst, that Sam is dead. Meanwhile, Kylie Sinclair bombards Admiral Shepard (Bruce Davison), Grace’s father, using her intel that they fired upon their own ship because Chaplin had become a rogue captain as leverage. She wants her equipment on the next ship out or she’ll go public with what she knows. Devastatingly, the admiral had no clue that it was Americans who hit Grace’s ship. There’s another rapid cut to Sam in deep thought. We flashback to when he left for his four-month tour and Christine joked he should go AWOL. It’s quite a tender goodbye, and in their kidding and touching foreheads you are given the impression of genuine affection. Grace interrupts his memory to tell him thank you. “If you had told me to, I would have turned that key. Thank you for not making me.”
Back at the NATO station we see two nukes are fired by another vessel and strike Pakistan. The drums of war have sounded. It’s then that the captain gives Grace a course, they’re headed for the very island we’ve just seen. He plans to commandeer the NATO station. They surface, and rush upon the land with guns drawn. They forcibly enter the communications tower. Chaplin barks at Sophie, “This station belongs to me now.”
Marcus calls up Admiral Shepard and passes the phone to Grace. The man almost passes out from the rush of relief. Grace tells him, “When you hear what happened, I hope you’re proud of us.” At that moment, an officer hangs up the phone for him. In the next scene, Julian the island tyrant threatens SEAL James King (Aussie actor Daniel Lissing). Julian says if you “tourists” are allowed to stay it will be under certain terms and conditions. But let’s remember, he’s talking to a highly-trained killer. James details how efficiently and swiftly he would take out him and his men if not left in peace to get “fall-down drunk.” Julian scoffs and says, “Americans, such confidence.”
Sam calls Christine and she’s overwhelmed with elation as well. He asks her to promise she’ll believe in him, and never forget how much he loves her. Suddenly, the power goes out. With Sophie, Sam stalks around the corner and sees Officer Lawrence making a call to D.C. Officer Stern holds Sam at gunpoint saying they’re already dead, he just doesn’t know it yet. Grace steps out of the shadows and guns down Stern, shocking everyone. But before they can process, bomber planes are detected, heading for the island.
Rushing back onto the sub, Marcus says they need to change the game. Along with Sam, they send a missile in the air. Marcus calls up command, threatening to detonate the missile in D.C if they don’t turn the planes around. They say he’s bluffing, but he stands his ground saying they have two minutes. Two minutes pass, and they are still bearing down. Sam and Marcus get ready to initiate the destruct sequence on the missile. The captain gives a solemn speech about the inevitability of death and how it’s been an honor to serve with them. Yet, the bombers do turn around, though ninety seconds after the deadline. Marcus pulls out his key. Sam panics, questioning his leader for the first time. Marcus convinces him though that if they don’t back up their threats, they’l be dead in a week, along with the innocents of the island town. We see a missile fly by the Washington Monument. It’s a bold, startling site. The missile lands in the ocean, 20 miles off the coast. No one is harmed, but they got their attention.
Marcus records a message to be broadcast to the world. During this, there’s a series of clips. One, Christine is being questioned. In another, Grace stares at Stern’s lifeless body. Chief Prosser calls her a little bitch, and she retorts that’s it’s Lieutenant Little Bitch. Then, the injured SEAL rants from his cot about how their intel was wrong and that they are killing the wrong people. Another SEAL shuts his curtain. In another clip, Julian has captured two crew members in an attempt to regain his authority. Finally, SEAL James King watches the TV at the bar and breaks down as he watches Pakistan burn, saying he did that, he made that happen. The bartender Tani (Dichen Lachman) comforts and holds him.
The end of the speech that is so forcefully and thunderously delivered by Andre Braugher conveys the mission statement for the series—”We do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own. If the current U.S executive or any other nation violates this perimeter, we have seventeen more nuclear missiles on board and we will not hesitate to unleash fiery hell upon you. I give you my word. Test us, and we will all burn together. You’ve been warned.” Sam comments, “Just crazy enough, sir.”
Sam, Grace and Marcus look out over the island. Marcus found Christine’s photo and returns it to Sam. Marcus laments, “What happened to the country I grew up in? They’ve made it all a mess. We could do better, right here.” Sam is dismayed, saying that everything they did was so they could stay alive long enough to get home. Marcus wonders aloud about an ominous reality, “Maybe this is home now.”
This was a pilot LOADED with thrills, psychological torment, and a flood of emotion. Martin Campbell, an exceptional action director (“Casino Royale”) adds a heightened sense of alarm to everything, giving even the vaguest reference of doom a tremendous weight. He zooms from frame to frame with a energy that gets our blood pumping in synchronicity with the characters. There are, however, some troubling elements that stood out. Why do we care about Kylie Sinclair other than for her smoking hot body? The connection with the material was loose at best. How did she know to go to Admiral Shepard, how did she know where he would be? Who is this friend with enough security clearance to know that Chaplin was being relieved? Additionally, why the secrecy? Why aren’t we privy to what happened to the Navy SEALs? What is this unrest in our nation’s capital? What is the aim of this President and why is he so off his rocker?
This withholding of crucial information is typical of network TV. “Lost” fell into the same trap, becoming about the reveal and not the excruciating journey of these survivors. I have faith in Marcus Chaplin due to Braugher’s dynamite performance. I believe he could rebuild society on this island. If that’s where we are headed, I am intrigued. But skepticism is warranted. This is the classic “I have no idea where this is headed” show. That can either be a roller coaster, or a train wreck. If it didn’t involve men I trust, like Shawn Ryan, I would be hauling ass. I’d want to be as far away as possible since it would be a hotbed for disaster. Much like the impossible scenario Marcus Chaplin has entrapped his crew in, this show is teetering on the edge of brilliance and insanity. Either we land on solid ground, or we’re diving into an abyss that there’s no climbing out from. For now, based on a tightly constructed, if not dizzying pilot, I trust the honor of these men and women involved. But don’t blame a guy for wondering if this act of defiance isn’t going to do more harm than good. If this island experiment succeeds though, then like Chaplin’s brash maneuver, it will have changed the game.