In 1991, NBC programmers rolled four powerhouse comedies into the networks Thursday-night lineup like tanks and declared the result Must-See TV, which sounded nicer than war, which is what it really was.
Ever since, the networks have treated Thursdays like hand-to-hand combat, putting their mightiest shows there and letting them fight to the death. Escalation has been steady, and now weve reached the end game: a drama equipped with nuclear weapons. Literally. ABCs Last Resort is about a rogue nuclear submarine commander holding the world hostage. And it will blow you away.
Last Resorts basic plot is deceptively simple to state. As a political crisis mounts in Washington, where much of the top Pentagon brass has resigned and the president faces impeachment, the commander of a U.S. Navy submarine in the waters in the Arabian Sea gets a startling order to fire his missiles at Pakistan.
But the order comes from a secondary communications channel intended for use only if Washington has already been destroyed, and other radio and television signals show no sign of a war under way. When the captain and his second-in-command question the order, their own vessel comes under attack from an American ship. Seeking cover on a tiny nearby island, the crew tries to figure out why it suddenly has become the blood enemy of its own government.
Last Resorts premise alone promises a pretty good action thriller. But co-creator (with Karl Gajusek) and writer Shawn Ryan has produced something much bigger and better than an exercise in bang-bang. Last Resort is layered with political paranoia and personal tensions. Does the ships crew contain a mole answering to sinister forces back at the Pentagon? Whats the story behind the team of Navy SEALs that the sub rescued from a mysterious mission in Pakistan?
Much of the subs crew is offering macho resistance to a female officer who, the men are certain, owes her rank to her admiral daddy. Both the commander (Andre Braugher) and executive officer (Scott Speedman, Felicity) are keeping personal secrets that may be affecting their judgment. The captains blustering threats to turn his missiles on Washington are they a canny defensive strategy, or the signs of a mind cracking under pressure?
Ryan is one of the most versatile and talented producers in television. His shows, ranging from the muzzle-velocity cop drama The Shield to the wistful buddy comedy Terrier, have little in common except their intelligence. In Last Resort, he strikes off in a new direction, offering a millennial reboot of the manic political-conspiracy thrillers of the Vietnam era. His 1960s touchstones are obvious, from the white-knuckle novel Seven Days in May, in which a military coup threatens the White House, to the sub commanders belief in Richard Nixons Madman Theory of foreign policy (oddly misattributed to Ronald Reagan).
Nixon thought he could make peace with the North Vietnamese more quickly if they believed he was nutty enough to use nuclear weapons. Some of the Götterdämmerung chatter heard on his White House tapes was undoubtedly in support of the Madman Theory, which illustrates the dilemma at the heart of Last Resort: Making people think youre crazy requires you to act crazy, tiptoeing right up to a very dangerous line.
CBS Elementary is also an update of a classic, the tale of Sherlock Holmes stories. In this version, Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a recovering cocaine addict who works as a consultant to New York City cops, and faithful assistant Watson (Lucy Liu) his therapist, who finds she has an unexpected talent for investigation. The only real surprise about this show is that it took so long for CBS, which invented and exhausted the CSI formula, to turn its attention to the Holmes stories, the original police procedurals. But Miller and Liu, simultaneously irritating and charming each other, make Elementary far more watchable than anybody could have expected.
CBS is less successful tinkering with its own formula in Made in Jersey, which debuts Friday. Its an attempt to stand The Good Wife on its head: Instead of Julianna Margulies playing a housewife learning to bare her claws as she returns to practicing law, we have Janet Montgomery as a street-smart lawyer trying to file down her rough edges at a firm reeking of the Ivy League. Made in Jersey is only sporadically engaging, though when Montgomery gets a new tattoo to celebrate winning her first case, its kind of cute. The tattoo, I mean.