The Pitch: The video game adaptation remains an albatross around the neck of many a film and TV producer. For every Silent Hill, there’s a dozen or so Wing Commanders; TV’s no different, even as recently as last year’s weaksauce Halo series for Paramount+. But HBO hopes to break the mold with The Last of Us, their prestige-drama take on the acclaimed Naughty Dog game of the same name.
If you’ve played that game, or its divisive sequel (or watched The Walking Dead or any other zombie media over the past few decades), the premise is pretty familiar: The world has been ravaged by a deadly plague that kills millions and turns them into flesh-eating monsters (covered in mutated Cordyceps fungus), and the desperate survivors scramble to stay alive and maintain their humanity in a world starved for it. Society has collapsed, leaving only a totalitarian police state in select “quarantine zones” and, of course, the dangers of the wilderness.
Enter Joel (Pedro Pascal), a world-weary smuggler suddenly tasked with sneaking a young girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the quarantine zone and to a resistance group that could use her apparent immunity to find a cure. Along the way, they’ll have to dodge “clickers,” evade murderous bandits, and forge an erstwhile bond amid the rotting corpse of the old world.
Mushroom Hunting: The original game was praised not just for its gameplay, but for its strong, evocative writing and well-drawn characters, courtesy of writer Neil Druckmann. For better and for worse, Druckmann (who also writes, and even directs an episode) ports over those elements onto the TV show, with added help from Chernobyl‘s Craig Mazin. What results, though, is the kind of series that feels interesting and evocative and unpredictable… if you’ve never played the game before.
That’s the trick with certain video game adaptations: Recent AAA games have progressed so far with their storytelling and their cinematic sheen that they basically play like movies anyway. The Last of Us is maybe the shining example of that particular brand of video-game storytelling; watching the show, you get the feeling (for the most part) that Mazin, Druckmann, and the cast are just recreating the plot beats and dialogue from the game itself, and leaning on its big budget and marquee stars to carry it through to old and new fans alike.
Like the game, the show’s impact rests on its central pairing, and to their credit Pascal and Ramsey are more than capable replacements for Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson (both of whom get fitting cameos throughout the show). Pascal’s in Mandalorian mode here yet again, a stoic fighter whose empty life finds purpose in the young, precocious charge he’s set to protect.
Ramsey’s Ellie, meanwhile, is no Baby Yoda — she’s a mouthy, disobedient child who’s as resourceful as she is reckless, throwing out punny quips with all the verve of a Joss Whedon character. But both these attitudes are defense mechanisms against a world that’d just as soon seen them dead, whether by man or beast; watching them let down their defenses over the course of the first season is a welcome sight.
But the show’s adherence to the game’s plot (mostly) causes a lot of pacing problems as well. Some episodes feel like hour-long setpieces, as Joel, Ellie, and whatever poor souls they’ve run into along the way make their way through abandoned buildings, tunnels, past checkpoints, etc. That means minutes at a time of silent trudging through darkened corridors, gun in hand, as if you’ve let your friend have the controller for a bit and you’re just waiting for the next cutscene.
Run-ins with the clickers (who remain as creepy as they do in the games) are often inventive, but just as frequently succumb to a kind of kitschy overkill — especially in a mid-season showdown with a gang of bandits led by a delicious droll Melanie Lynskey. Shades of Resident Evil — the Netflix show — abound in these moments, so beware.
Long Long Time: There are a few chapters where The Last of Us veers away majorly from the events of the game, and that’s where the show shines brightest. The most elegant example of this is the staggering third episode, which centers on a flashback cutaway to Bill (Nick Offerman), a doomsday-prepper survivalist who keeps himself alive by constructing a perfect kill box of safety around him. We sit with him and his lonely life, charting the dark, horrible price of survival — and the way his life changes when another man named Frank (Murray Bartlett) finds himself caught in one of Bill’s traps.
What follows is a superlative hour of television, a sweet, tragic, heartbreaking character story set amid the misery of the apocalypse — a reminder that amid all the hopelessness, joy can survive.
The Verdict: Between our collective cultural weariness with zombie stories (The Walking Dead only just shuffled off this mortal coil less than two months ago), and the beat-for-beat fidelity to the game’s story, there’s a lot in The Last of Us that feels stale. But within that repetition, there are glimmers of promise: Its slick presentation, Pascal and Ramsey’s soulful performances, the show’s intermittent detours to (forgive me) flesh out the world Mazin and Druckmann have set up.
Newbies to the story may find plenty to love in the series, if they can get past the trappings of the genre itself. But if you’re familiar with the game, get ready to watch it all over again, with a couple of novel twists. Here’s hoping those changes are enough to make the series feel in any way new. Otherwise, you might as well watch a Let’s Play.
Where’s It Playing? The Last of Us shuffles madly onto HBO January 15th, with new episodes premiering weekly.