Show of the week: Last Resort, Wednesday, Channel Seven, 8.45pm
PARANOIA is a terrific dramatic device and in the past decade, the rising paranoid fear of the US that it is losing its place as the world's premier superpower has fuelled a run of terrific TV series, from 24 to Nikita to Homeland. Add Last Resort to the list.
The USS Colorado is a nuclear sub cruising around the Indian Ocean when it is ordered by Washington to nuke Pakistan. Captain Marcus Chaplin (Andre Braugher) senses something dodgy and questions the order to attack. In response, a sister sub fires on the vessel and Chaplin flees to an island holiday resort, takes over the joint and sets up the world's smallest nuclear power. He establishes a no-go zone around the island and announces that any breach will lead to nuclear terror raining down on the world. He even sends out a couple of potshots to prove he's nuts enough to deliver on the threat.
Back in Washington, the military is scrambling to deal with the rogue sub commander, with friends, family and the military itself unsure of who the good guys are and who's trying to manipulate global politics - and to what end.
Meanwhile, Pakistan is obliterated by a nuclear strike.
In the hands of a more artistically adventurous network, say HBO, Last Resort might have been a high-concept thriller, a kind of The Cruel Sea meets Heart of Darkness. It might have struck a more restrained, tauter tone as it investigated the intersection of submariner claustrophobia and geopolitics tinged with the edginess that comes with a commander at the limit of sanity, a cache of deadly ordnance and nothing to lose. Instead, series creator Shawn Ryan (The Shield) gives us Crimson Tide lite-cum-JAG. That's not to say it's bad, it's just aimed at a more middle-of-the-road audience.
There's a lot to like here, but also much that annoys. The intriguing set-up is established at lightning speed - sometimes too fast. The exposition is delivered in dialogue so plot- and detail-dense, regular speech sounds like a reading from Jane's Defence Weekly.
It also has a two-speed tone that doesn't always play well. Its ''lighter'' moments slip awkwardly into the drama - the most cringeworthy comes when the sub crosses the equator and the crew dances to La Bamba likes it's 1999 - and too many of the main characters could have come straight from a fashion shoot. Daisy Betts (as Lieutenant Grace Shepard) is the worst offender. Even in loose camouflage gear you can tell she stands like a model, weight on one leg, hip cocked. With her perfect make-up, plucked eyebrows and swishy girl-next-door ponytail, she's not what you'd call ''gritty''. No wonder her subordinates find it hard to take her seriously. The pretty-boy male crew members aren't much better. On the other hand, this is a killer set-up. It's over-the-top, well beyond the realm of possibility, so far-fetched you not only have to suspend your disbelief, you might as well cut it up into teensy pieces and feed it to your goldfish.
There's a lot of rah-rah flag-waving - all part of the US's national mythology, we can forgive that - but you can't fault the ideals themselves. The show does a fair job of raising issues around power and its abuse, staying true to friends in the face of threats to honour, and staying true to honour in the face of opposition from friends. Good fodder for the kind of healthy cynicism that keeps bastards honest.
And it's great for viewers who like to play What Metaphor for Declining US Power Is That? Threat from within? Tick. Self-interested elite has lost sight of the ideals that made the country great? Tick. Women in the military confusing the lines of authority? Tick.
The reason we accept the whole outlandish premise of Last Resort is the performance of Andre Braugher, who made his name as detective Frank Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Streets, and built on it with meaty roles in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Gideon's Crossing, Hack and House.
Braugher is powerful as the upright, honest, true-to-his-ideals commander who sets himself against the as-yet-unknown forces that would debase everything he knows is right and good. By turns vulnerable and bordering on crazy, Braugher's Chaplin is the good guy who turns out to be the maniac, just crazy enough to save the world.