SCREEN TEST

Second season of The Last Ship keeps apocalypse light

Rhona Mitra in The Last Ship (above). The Schitt's Creek family is played by (from far left) Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy.
Rhona Mitra in The Last Ship (above). The Schitt's Creek family is played by Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy.PHOTOS: FX, WARNER TV
Rhona Mitra in The Last Ship (above). The Schitt's Creek family is played by (from far left) Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy.
Rhona Mitra in The Last Ship. The Schitt's Creek family is played by (from far left) Annie Murphy, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy.PHOTOS: FX, WARNER TV

Returning series The Last Ship is action without angst and Schitt's Creek does not deliver the laughs

If a pandemic wiped out 80 per cent of the Earth's population, one of the best places you could be, it turns out, is on a missile gunboat cut off from the rest of the world.

On the television series The Last Ship, the crew of the U.S.S. Nathan James is saved because it went on a top secret four-month sojourn in the Arctic.

Season 1 last year began with commanding officer Captain Tom Chandler (Grey's Anatomy star Eric Dane) and his ship breaking their radio silence and discovering that the apocalypse had happened while they were away and that their real mission all along had been to help the paleobiologist on board, Dr Rachel Scott (Strike Back's Rhona Mitra), find a cure for the virus.

The gripping pilot and early episodes bore the unmistakeable fingerprints of series producer Michael Bay, who directed the Transformers movies (2007 - 2014). Bay brought with him the sensibility of those films: brisk action with lots of stuff blowing up around a nice-looking cast, with little time spent on pesky things such as character development and dramatic subtlety.

And it largely worked: The Last Ship became the most-watched new cable show in the United States last year.

  • THE LAST SHIP

    WarnerTV (StarHub TV Channel 515), Tuesday, 9pm
    3/5 stars

  • SCHITT'S CREEK

    FX (StarHub TV Channel 507, Singtel TV Channel 310), Wednesday, 10.30pm
    2.5/5 stars

As it embarks on its second season, which airs in Singapore on WarnerTV (StarHub TV Channel 515), most of the audience will likely be returning viewers who will bear with any teething issues it might have: Now that Dr Scott has found a cure, how do they produce and disseminate it to the rest of the world?

The chaotic Season 2 opener would be confusing to almost anyone else as another group of survivors storms the Nathan James trying to steal the cure.

But the show quickly settles down into what has become a standard formula in the post-apocalypse genre: The central group of survivors encounters other rival groups, which are often either irredeemably evil, or welcoming and idyllic at first, but are soon revealed to be some sort of autocratic or Darwinian nightmare.

But there is enough variation on the theme to keep things interesting here, including more of a military spin on the pandemic story seen in films such as Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) - this means nifty scenes involving a game of hide-and-seek between the Nathan James and a submarine.

And whereas the first season relied heavily on cartoonish bad guys - mostly Al Qaeda prisoners and Russians - the second outing introduces a more interesting group of adversaries: a band of survivors who have natural immunity to the disease and want to see the rest of the herd thinned out.

There is none of the narrative stagnation that more thoughtful apocalyptic shows such as The Walking Dead occasionally suffer from as their characters pause to ponder the meaning of it all. When The Last Ship tries to do this - as when Dr Scott has only one dose of the cure left, forcing a dying mother to choose between herself and her child - it does it so badly, you cringe.

The series is much better off sticking to what it does best, which is a sort of "apocalypse lite" - all of the action but none of the angst.

Schitt's Creek, a new comedy, also benefits from an association with a brand-name director. Its two leads, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, are principally known for the brilliant mockumentary-style comedies of Christopher Guest, including Best In Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003) - although a younger generation would better recognise Levy as Jason Biggs' dad in American Pie (1999) .

Guest has nothing to do with Schitt's Creek, which is about a wealthy family who find themselves impoverished overnight when their business manager vanishes with their money.

But an affection for his delightful films will doubtless draw many people to this show - and they will be terribly disappointed.

The only asset the bankrupt Rose family has left is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere that dad John (Levy) bought for son David (played by Levy's real son Daniel).

He purchased it as a joke because of its name - Schitt's Creek - but that is where the cosseted Roses now find themselves when they are forced to leave their mansion and decamp to the town's fleabag motel.

Arrested Development showed how rich a vein of comedy a simple reversal of fortunes can be, but comparisons to that quirky cult show stop there.

Comedically, Schitt's Creek is fairly monotonous. The writers return again and again to the same wells, whether it is with one too many puns on the name of the town and its mayor, Roland Schitt, or never- ending jokes about the spoilt and vacuous Rose kids dealing with sudden destitution.

Many of the little nuggets of joy are provided by O'Hara, who plays the mother, Moira. There are few actresses who can make a screaming freak-out quite as funny as she can, or deliver a defence of her character's dubious parenting skills with such aplomb (she calmly explains that she took the wrong child home from her daughter's pre-school because "Alexis looked Chinese as an infant - how many times must I defend myself?").

But the writers are fast running out of the cheap riches-to-rags gags; as the season progresses, they seem to be leaning more towards having the family try to improve their relationships and become better people.

That earnestness further dilutes the already weak laughs. If it continues, it is the show that will find itself up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline 'Apocalypse light ScreenTest'. Print Edition | Subscribe