LOS ANGELES — With his trademark showmanship, director Michael Bay is back in full summer mode, presenting another epic, global story fueled by heroic characters, spectacular explosions, and machines awesome in size, majestic in power and capable of mass destruction.
Oh, by the way, he’s also got a new “Transformers” movie coming out.
Days before Optimus Prime and the Autobots invade the multiplexes, Bay is set to unveil a different and large-scale TV production: “The Last Ship,” which premieres Sunday on TNT. On board with Bay are a couple of familiar TV faces as well as a couple of center attraction newcomers — two active-duty U.S. Navy destroyers where much of the action in the series takes place.
“The Last Ship” is TNT’s powerhouse entry into the suddenly highly competitive summer season, where cable and broadcast networks have moved away from reruns and reality shows toward grand projects with A-list talent (NBC’s “Crossbones” with John Malkovich, CBS’ “Extant” with Halle Berry and FX’s “The Strain” from Guillermo del Toro). With Bay’s star power, an aggressive promotional campaign and a rumored budget hovering around $2.5 million per episode, TNT is — figuratively and literally — calling out the big guns.
“With this show, we’re making a bold statement about the ambition of the network,” said Michael Wright, TNT’s president of programming.
The 10-episode series is being paired with the network’s veteran sci-fi venture “Falling Skies,” and stars Eric Dane and Rhona Mitra. Dane once made hearts flutter as McSteamy on the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” and the British-born Mitra did likewise in series including “Boston Legal” and “Nip/Tuck.”
“I’ve been slow and cautious about getting into television,” said Bay, one of the show’s executive producers along with Hank Steinberg and Steven Kane. “This was a really cinematic idea, and was right up my alley.”
Like “Armageddon” and his “Transformers” films, “The Last Ship” is high concept. A deadly virus wipes out almost all the world’s population while the crew and captain of the destroyer are at sea on a secret mission with two scientists. In the aftermath, it’s up to the ship’s survivors to help save humanity.
The real stars are two 505-foot-long U.S. Navy guided missile destroyers that trade off in portraying the show’s primary setting, the fictional Nathan James. Bay persuaded the U.S. Navy to provide the Halsey and the Dewey for the series.
The hulking, sophisticated vessels lend an impressive air of authenticity.
Both ships have missile launching systems that can hold about 90 missiles, torpedo launchers and other heavy-duty artillery for missions as a protector unit for airstrike groups and counter-piracy operations. It’s one of the few times active-duty naval destroyers have been used for a television series.
But shooting aboard operational naval vessels can present its own challenges for a 250-member TV crew. During March filming on the Dewey docked in San Diego, parts of the ship became a tangle of wires, cables and lights inside an already cramped space. Adding to the clutter were green screens, which had to be installed at various points on the ship to hide neighboring vessels nearby. (Computer graphics will make it appear as if the ship is at sea.)
Dane and Mitra said they were invigorated by the authentic surroundings.
“This has truly been a one-of-a-kind experience, across the board,” said Dane. “Everyone says we’re there to make them look good. But they’re making us look good.”
Meanwhile, producers were determined to make sure the show feels energetic and fast-paced. TV shows typically have 40 to 45 scenes, but “The Last Ship” will have more than double that.
“That’s what keeps the pace taut and tight,” said Steinberg. “But shooting 100 scenes in 10 days, it’s very tough.”
Of the setting, Bay added: “We absolutely could not fake that — the show just feels more real because there really is a lot of Navy in it. We really couldn’t have done it without that.”
None of the shooting could have been done without the cooperation of the armed forces. But thanks to Bay’s productive relationship with the military, which stretches back to 1998’s “Armageddon,” the series obtained near unprecedented access. Even some crew members served as extras.
“I’ve probably had more U.S. shields in my movies than anyone,” said Bay. “This show really feels like the Navy feels.”
The series still had to be approved by senior leaders, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, before the destroyers would be lent out for filming.
“We have a vested interest in not having the Navy look bad,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Brian Quin, a decorated officer and a former destroyer commander who served as a technical advisor for the production. “This is great because we get to show sailors in an awesome light.”
THE LAST SHIP
When: 9 p.m. EDT Sunday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)