'The Last Ship': This boat doesn't know how to go slow

I had a pretty good time with 2012’s “Battleship” until the huge alien war machines rose out of the water.  There just isn’t enough good cinema about the modern surface Navy.  It seemed a pity to spend the kind of money “Battleship” did, and muck it up with a dopey plot about extraterrestrials (and a childhood-favorite board game.)  ETs are generally quite welcome in my movie and TV diet, but I left the theater thinking that a more realistic look at contemporary surface action would fascinate audiences, just as books on the subject have been captivating readers for many years.

Michael Bay might not be the first name in your mental Rolodex when it comes to “realism,” but he is one of the best guys to call if you want the U.S. military to add authenticity to a project, because he can apparently get anything short of a carrier battle group launched with a few phone calls.  He’s one of the executive producers of “The Last Ship,” the new TNT series.  It should not be confused with last year’s “The Last Resort,” because in that one the boat was under the water, and it didn’t go anywhere.  By contrast, “The Last Ship” never stops.  

There’s more plot packed into the first episode of this series than most shows can manage in an entire year.  The first draft of the script must have been scribbled on Starbucks’ napkins, and there wasn’t a drop of coffee left in the joint when the writers were done.  The hyperactive pace of the story helps a couple of obligatory military-thriller scenes go down easy.  If you don’t like what you’re watching at the moment, rest assured it will change completely in about 30 seconds.

“The Last Ship” offers a wild combination of seemingly realistic action aboard the bridge of a Navy destroyer, and you-gotta-be-kidding-me antics that must have had the Navy guys consulting for the production in stitches.  I liked the pilot episode best when it was trying to be serious, but I’m not going to say “no” to a couple of squids on a snowmobile blowing a Russian helicopter out of the air with a shoulder-fired missile.  The special effects are pretty good for a TV show; I thought it was interesting that any flaws in the production values were least noticeable when the script was least silly.  People will forgive a few less rendering passes at the CGI special-effects studio when they’re watching something that seems plausible.  If the pilot episode is any indication, “The Last Ship” will be plausible about half the time, but always entertaining.

There actually is a science-fiction element in this story, but it’s far less goofy than the aliens of “Battleship.”  A global pandemic is grimly exterminating much of the human race with blinding speed – our heroes sail for the Arctic on what they think is a humdrum training mission with a couple of scientists along for the ride, and four months later, they find out every government in the world has collapsed, as the plague bids to kill off 80 percent of the planetary population.  (Look on the bright side – at least they’re not coming back as zombies.)  Those scientists aboard ship turn out to be researching the plague, and they think their Arctic research might have given them what they need for a cure, but every landlocked laboratory is now compromised by viral outbreaks, desperate people are rioting in the streets, somebody nukes France (on general principles?) and mysterious forces are out to sink the ship before the cure can be formulated.  

Most of that plot was in place at the half-hour mark; I think France made it to the third commercial break.  See what I mean about the pace?  “The Last Ship” has some plot holes (no other ships were safe at sea on extended deployment when the virus got busy?) but it just opens the throttles, kicks up a rooster tail, and jumps over them.  This might be the first show immune to DVR “binge watching,” because plowing through all ten episodes back-to-back would be like having Michael Bay slap you in the face with a wet tuna while you try to fold every single Transformers toy back into car mode.  It might jump a few sharks, but there’s no danger it will run aground like “The Last Resort” did.

If “The Last Ship” holds the strong ratings it pulled on its debut night, who knows what we might get next?  Who’s up for “Red Storm Rising” as a TV miniseries?