This television season has been a mixed blessing for those of us who like to study how humans behave under anarchy. On the one hand, in addition to Season Three of The Walking Dead about to start, two new shows have explored that theme at some length. The first to premier was Revolution. On the other hand, Revolution really isn't that good.
What about the other new show? Here's the extended trailer for Last Resort:
So, you get the premise: the nuclear sub USS Colorado gets an order to fire their nuclear weapons at Pakistan. While the codes check out, the order seems just a bit wonky cause it goes through a secondary alert network. After the captain and executive officer question the order to their superiors, all hell breaks loose.
My take? SPOILERS AHEAD.
Cards on the table: I definitely liked this show more than Revolution, although that's an admittedly low bar. This has a lot to do with the acting. Andre Braugher knows how to project authority, Robert Patrick is perfect as the grizzled and misogynistic chief of the boat, and I'm surprised to report that Scott Speedman is really compelling as the XO. Having watched the pilot and second episode, the tensions within the crew of the Colorado play out nicely. The mystery behind the launch also seems quite interesting. And the pilot does explain why, after a failed first attempt, the U.S. navy doesn't try to take out the Colorado again -- welcome to network television, MAD!!
So there's some potential here -- but there are also some serious, serious problems with the show as it's played out so far. In ascending order of importance:
1) in the pilot, Captain Chaplin relates to his XO an anecdote about Reagan needing to seem just a bit crazy to convince the Russians he could launch a nuke, while Brezhnev had already done that by invading Afghanistan. This ia a good setup for Chaplin's own need to seem just a bit crazy. The problem is that, Steve Saideman points out, it was Nixon and not Reagan who believed this logic.
2) I've met some submariners, and, well, let's just say that they're a different breed from the rest of the U.S. Navy. Any individual willing to be in a small hermetically sealed tube for up to six months has to have a particular mindset, and Last Resort doesn't hint at that. At a minimum, there would have been a few very religiously devout sailors on the Colorado, but that's not talked about at all. This is a shame, because the presence of Navy SEALS on the boat suggests the opportunities for some culture clashes that haven't panned out.
3) The Washington, DC scenes are not terribly convincing, particularly the super-hot defense contractor Kylie Sinclair, played by Autumn Reeser. Now let's be very clear here: I have no prejudice whatsoever against super-hot defense contractors. I do, however, have a problem with the notion that supposedly whip-smart Kylie is going to spill all the beans about her super-secret system that's on board the Colorado to the guy she's about to sleep with.
4) Oh, and about that system that Kylie set up -- essentially, it's a device that renders the Colorado invisible to detection. Not to put to fine a point on it, but this would not be a system that would make deterrence that stable. In fact, if memory serves someone made a movie based on this very premise.
5) Really, though, 1-4 are small matters compared to the elephant in the room with respect to Last Resort. The plot gets moving when the USS Colorado is ordered to fire its missiles at Pakistan. Later in the pilot, we discover that the USS Illinois did obey orders and fire two missiles into Pakistan, "killing millions" as one character later mentions.
After those missiles are fired, 98% of what we see is how Washington and the crew of the Colorado cope with the Colorado's refusal to obey orders. Which is pretty important... but maybe, just maybe, not as important as the U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS THAT WERE USED AGAINST PAKISTAN!!!!
Seriously, there are one or two mentions of how things in the world are "complicated" because of this, and that's it. Nothing on Pakistani retaliation, India's reaction, China's reaction, and so forth. In the Washington scenes, all anyone seems to care about is the Colorado, which is pretty funny, since I'd think the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945 might raise a few hackles.
Now you might think that since this is a show about the crew of a renegade sub, that's fine -- except it isn't. The plot in episode two hinges on Russian Spetsnaz forces trying to seize the boat. At one point the U.S. Secretary of Defense gets pretty indignant at a Russian official for trying to do this. In the show, the Russian official just looked sheepish. If this had played out in the real world, the Russian would have said the following:
"I'm sorry, what was that? You, the United States military, initiated the use of nuclear weapons in South Asia, killing millions of people, right? And now you have a rogue sub firing missiles close to Washington. You're asking what the hell Russia is doing? With all due respect, f**k off, Mr. Secretary."
I know I'm not going to watch Revolution again. I'm on the fence with Last Resort... but this whole nuking Pakistan thing going unmentioned might drive me away.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.