By Ken Tucker
Updated September 27, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Last Resort Speedman Braugher
Credit: Mario Perez/ABC

Tense and well-acted by stars Andre Braugher and Scott Speedman, Last Resort is one of the most promising new shows of the fall season, as well as being one that carries a big risk of dropping in quality: It’s an absorbing curiosity.

The pilot that aired on Thursday night told a complex tale with swift efficiency. Braugher and Speedman head up a Navy ballistic missle submarine, the USS Colorado. As Captain Marcus Chaplin and XO Lt. Commander Sam Kendal, respectively, the ship receives an order to launch a missle at Pakistan. Something’s fishy about this drastic directive, however, and when Chaplin balks at firing, he’s relieved of command and his second in command (the “XO”) is put in charge.

Last Resort is co-created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit) and Karl Gajdusek, and many of the submarine scenes achieved a kind of Das Boot-style feeling of simultaneous claustrophobia and non-stop activity. When the Colorado takes aboard some surly Navy SEALs who seem instantly bent on questioning, disobeying, and generally out-machoing any Colorado officer they encounter, things got excitingly crowded; there was barely enough room for Robert Patrick to find enough scenery to chew as the excessively-steamed Chief of the Boat Joseph Prosser.

You have to give the producers credit for trying to grapple with real politick on a broadcast network — no show this side of Homeland is taking the risk of dealing with actual geopolitical hot-spots. As Braugher’s Chaplin notes, “annihilating 4.3 million Pakistanis” is no small gesture. On dry land, we see on TV screens over other characters’ shoulders that the government is in tumult — something to do with an impeachment vote on the President. It’s also on dry land that we get the most damp subplots, such as a flirty Washington, D.C., designer of submarine cloaking systems (Autumn Reeser) tumbling to the Colorado’s disobeyed order before any of her colleagues, most of the government, and the entire media.

It’s all shaping up to being ascribed to a conspiracy, a governmental putsch, that could either prove Last Resort‘s triumph or undoing as an ongoing compelling drama. That, and the fact that the place the Colorado chooses to surfaces looks like the most gorgeous tropical paradise ABC has aired since Fantasy Island.

If you want to have someone sell a slightly wobbly story with vehement conviction, you can’t do better than Andre Braugher. The surprise of the series, however, may be how well he works with Scott Speedman. I wouldn’t have thought the mumble-prone Felicity vet would have meshed well with Braugher, but the two display convincing mentor-mentee chemistry.

I’ve seen next week’s episode as well, and I’m a little worried that Last Resort is going to take on too much melodramatic bilge in the D.C. scenes to maintain momentum, but I’m rooting for the show. How about you?

Twitter: @kentucker