"The Last of Us."
Early non-spoiler thoughts on the buzz-heavy HBO zombie apocalypse series.
So, how about a One Episode Test?
I normally would wait for at least two episodes as you know — if not a full season — but there were a lot of competing factors in play around “The Last of Us,” the biggest being that my partner is a zombie fanatic and there was no possible way we were going to skip watching this on Sunday.
I had avoided like — wait for it — the plague, any story or review about the new HBO Max series other than what was too contagious to miss. But sure, I wanted to watch it, too.
For me, the interest was mainly two-fold: 1) How do you make a good post-apocalypse TV series in 2023 when so many of them are so fresh in viewers minds — from HBO’s own “Station Eleven” to the ultimate zombie TV series, “The Walking Dead”? and 2) the buzz.
To the first issue, I was trying to imagine that challenge from the writers experience while also knowing it was based on a video game, a burden that is its own special kind of hell.
I had zero interest in finding out if a video game — which “The Last of Us” is famously based on — could become a good TV series. Of course it could. A really good writer and a creative partner (or three) can turn almost any crap into gold. See, it’s not that it can’t be done. It’s that so few have done it. It’s not the genre. It’s the writer’s creativity.
I’ve never played “The Last of Us” video game watched anyone play it but that didn’t matter because one of the standard TV Critic Rules about source material — ultimately it doesn’t matter; is this a good show or not on its own — always applies.
Side bonus: I had heard that the ghouls in “The Last of Us” weren’t technically zombies and gamers and fanboys were going to go out of their way to make this distinction, so I just wanted to state the obvious: they’re zombies. You can call them the Cordyceps if you want but, whatever, they’re zombies. On that front, second bonus side-note: the fact that this fungi mutation is based in science is very intriguing, but I’ve got so many other things to worry about now I’m not going to start freaking out over the possibility that we should be less worried about a pandemic and more worried about a fungi outbreak — but I will say the series sets all of that up beautifully in the first episode.
As to the second reason for wanting to jump in right away instead of waiting for, at minimum, two episodes etc., was the fact that “The Last of Us” has already achieved that rarity, that unobtainium of the TV world — buzz. It’s so rare that any series gets this much buzz before the premiere — no doubt gamer-fueled by its source material. Still, I understand all too well how difficult such an achievement is and wanted to see what was up.
Meaning, here’s a show everyone seems excited about which is kinda like a bunch of other shows in the same genre so has everyone lost their minds?
I had to know.
What I found was exactly what I was hoping to find — an exciting, well-done first episode of a zombie series that will be sitting there on HBO every Sunday for nine weeks when I need a cheap thrill. Whether “The Last of Us” becomes “better” than “The Walking Dead” is not a real care for me, but I do wonder if it will achieve the creative heights of “Station Eleven,” still one of the better and most memorable shows of recent years.
The set up for “The Last of Us” is very familiar if you’ve seen almost any dystopian story: We meet most of the people in the Before Times, which in this case is 2003, in Austin, Texas, where we meet single-father Joel (Pedro Pascal) and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker, the spitting image of her mother, Thandiwe Newton — billed as Thandie Newton until recently). Joel, a construction worker scrambling to make ends meet, is celebrating his 36th birthday, along with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) when all of a sudden — as it is wont to do — the world changes.
There’s a fungus among us. (Pretty much had to do that.)
The show jumps 20 years and kicks off its post-apocalyptic storyline with Joel, now a smuggler working in quarantined Boston, with lover-partner Tess (Anna Torv), trying to survive in world of fungi-zombies and a really repressive federal government (which notes that it must protect agains “infection and insurrection”). Joel and company are tasked with getting Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a teenager showing no signs of infection after having been attacked — thus ta-dum, Mankind’s Only Hope — across the country.
OK, so if you have’t read any of the five million articles on this series, you’re all caught up on the premise.
And yes, I’m aware that Pascal is good at protecting small things on long journeys. And that Torv knows all about creepy things. And that Pascal and Ramsey have played “Game Of Thrones.”
While it’s way, way, way too early to know if “The Last of Us” can stand out among the insanely crowded field — much of it recent — of post-apocalypse content, if you watched the first episode then I’m sure you’ve already felt the presence of most of the others.
How could viewers not? This is a well-worn path here — it’s impossible to watch without feeling the presence of everything before it. (I’d love to see a gif of a bunch of AMC executives holding up their hands and asking, “Really?” after they gave the world way too many season of “The Walking Dead.”)
But the series is written both by Neil Druckmann, who created and wrote the video game, and Craig Mazin of “Chernobyl” fame, so it’s worth giving that duo a lot of rope to see what they come up with.
To their credit, the extensive early backstory roots the characters and it seems like there’s a storytelling depth that makes the show feel, for lack of a better word right now, less “gamey”. The first bar to clear wasn’t, by the way, whether “The Last of Us” could stand out in the zombie genre, it was to entertain and enthrall, which it achieved in the nearly 90-minute first episode.
I wouldn’t call that a low bar. Just an essential bar. Whether the show works in comparison to what came before it will be decided much later, but all that really matters in the present is if you want to tune in again next Sunday — and I certainly do.
But I’m also not the fan-boy critic type to flip out over something like this (and holy hell, wow, is that element out there in the “critic”-verse), so I was merely pleased to have my pulse race a bit (these zombies are fast, by the way, not plodders), and my curiosity piqued.
So far, so good. I’ll definitely revisit this series as it unfolds and will look forward to the comments from those who tuned in over the weekend and whether they will keep going.
I really enjoyed the first episode. I have not read any think pieces and didn’t play the game, so I’m along for the ride with this one. I admit to being an Armageddon backseat driver though. “Why are you doing that!? That’s so stupid! Go back!”
I knew that I would be watching this at least a month ago, just to see if they could pull it off. However, I didn't watch on Sunday night and I've decided to wait and binge.
I agree that Station 11 was a high water mark for the post apocalyptic dystopian genre, I'm pretty sure I started Station 11 before you even mentioned it, Tim — because of the McKenzie Davis of it all (Halt and Catch Fire made me a huge fan). What set that apart from the other shows in this genre was the heart and humanity of it all. It was far less about fun ways to kill a zombie and far more about how people could survive something horrific like this and not only retain but blossom in their humanity.
...and then there's The Walking Dead. Mildly interesting for the first half of the first season then it just became interminable. Very few of the characters were really well drawn (though some became so after more seasons than I was willing to give it, apparently). The protagonist was whiney, his son made me want to throttle him even more that the daughter in the first few episodes of Fleishman and it just went on and on and on. But that wasn't enough, apparently because then Fear the Walking Dead, Walking Dead II: The Heretic and, of course The Walking Dead vs The Wolfman. They kept promising that they would end the reign of mediocrity but it. Just. Kept, Going.
The Strain was an interesting show that seemed to have a sense of what it was and it was fine.
No one has mentioned it, but for shows that are derived from other sources, I actually really enjoyed Showtime's Let The Right One In. Compelling characters and a "monster" that possessed more compassion and humanity than many of the "normal" people that populated that world. Check this one out.
I'm glad you wrote the spoiler-free 2, er, 1 Episode Test™ because it's confirmed that I'm gonna enjoy the time I spend with The Last of Us in a few weeks!