As temperatures soar, summer TV is heating up with a fresh crop of shows quickly catching fire with audiences. None more so than TNT's The Last Ship, the apocalyptic naval adventure series that notched 5.3 million viewers during its June 22 debut, making it cable's largest series launch this year. Anchored by a photogenic cast of TV favorites — Eric Dane (Grey's Anatomy), Rhona Mitra (Strike Back) and Adam Baldwin (Chuck) — the show, based on William Brinkley's novel of the same name, features a dazzling mix of end-of-the-world drama and explosive military action sequences.
"The ambition of television programming in general is on the rise," cocreator and executive producer Hank Steinberg says. "Advancements in visual effects, and being able to do them economically, are creating a landscape where you can do event programming affordably. That's attracting big directors and producers who want to be a part of it."
If The Last Ship appears to have the trappings of a summer movie blockbuster, that's no surprise, given it's being executive produced by Michael Bay. The 49-year-old director is a master of big-budget hits like the Transformers franchise, whose fourth installment, Age of Extinction, earned more than $300 million worldwide during its opening weekend in late June.
Bay made the jump to the small screen as producer on the Starz pirate drama Black Sails earlier this year and has been actively developing The Last Ship alongside TNT brass for the past two years.
The series follows the adventures of a Navy crew crisscrossing the planet desperately trying to develop a cure for a virus that has eliminated 80 percent of the world's population. With intense battle sequences, a mysterious conspiracy and even a sprinkle of romance, Ship has Bay's fingerprints all over it.
"He was very involved in everything from casting to costumes to locations to storyboards; everything went through him and he was very collaborative," cocreator and executive producer Steven Kane says. Kane credits Bay's strong relationship with the military, which dates to his theatrical hits The Rock and Armageddon. "He wanted to make sure it was handled right, so he made the right calls to open doors. He was very respectful of what we wanted to do."
Bay even positioned himself behind the camera during the filming of the pilot, directing the white-knuckle Arctic combat scene that pits virologist Dr. Rachel Scott (Mitra) against a fleet of Russian military helicopters. "We were in minus-20-degree temperatures being shot at by huge choppers, and I was sprinting across the snow with Michael shouting at me, 'You're running like a girl!'" Mitra says with a laugh. "I'm not an action heroine, but I have always had a 14-year-old boy inside of me who just geeks out on the world of Michael Bay and the magnitude of what he does. If you're going to be involved in this world, do it with the best there is."
For the commanding and powerful presence of Capt. Tom Chandler, producers enlisted Dane, 41, who had just concluded his seven-year run on Grey's Anatomy as Dr. Mark "McSteamy" Sloane. "It's an anomaly for any actor to play one character for that long, and Mark was a lot of fun, but this character feels a little bit closer to home for me," Dane says. "I connect with how conflicted, how honorable and how sincere he is. He's a principled guy, and that's something I pride myself on." Summing up his star's appeal, Steinberg says, "Men want to have a beer with him and women want to date him."
Dane went through weeks of rigorous physical training and military education in preparation for the role, but he admits it took only one factor to fully embody his character. "I put on the uniform, and that was 90 percent of it," Dane says. "You walk a little taller, stand a little straighter, and it's not because of the starch. You literally transform, and it's pretty remarkable."
For more on The Last Ship and TV's must-see dramas, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, July 10!