It is only January, but already there appears to be a trend defining the 2023 television season: watching Pedro Pascal shepherd a young charge across a dangerous landscape filled with enemies. That is the focus of The Mandalorian, which kicks off its highly anticipated third season on Disney+ March 1, but also the core of The Last of Us, HBO’s new mega-budget zombie series that premieres Jan. 15.
The Pascal-as-protector logline is (mostly) accidental – HBO would very much prefer if audiences focus on several other markers that make The Last of Us stand out in this exceedingly crowded landscape. For instance, the series is the continuation of a fruitful relationship between the cable giant and Craig Mazin, the mastermind behind HBO’s acclaimed Chernobyl miniseries. The show also hopes to become the first truly successful small-screen adaptation of a video game, as it’s based on the massively popular PlayStation game and its sequel, which have sold more than 37 million copies (though, arguably, Netflix won this gamer-to-streamer race first with The Witcher).
But most of all, The Last of Us represents a pronouncement from HBO that it can continue to capture the zeitgeist, no matter the costs, no matter the competition, and no matter the genre. If you want the highest production values, the highest calibre of writing and directing, the highest-value performers, then HBO will deliver those goods across crime shows (We Own This City), prestige dramas (Succession), comedies (The White Lotus), teenage melodramas (Euphoria), fantasy (House of the Dragon), and now, horror.
One or two episodes of Tales from the Crypt aside, The Last of Us is HBO’s first entry into the popular but tricky zombie genre, with the cable giant hoping to hit the ratings jackpot just as AMC did with the early days of The Walking Dead – while avoiding the same undead exhaustion that eventually killed that franchise, and leaving its own network on life support. While AMC threw tons of money and resources and spinoffs toward The Walking Dead over the years, HBO seems intent on reminding subscribers that The Last of Us is something different – smarter, sharper, a true game-changer. It’s not TV zombies, it’s HBO zombies.
And for the first quarter of The Last of Us’ plus-sized 80-minute pilot, that promise holds true. The series opens in 1968 on the set of a talk show in which a pair of scientists ominously debate the threat of a future pandemic. I realize that doesn’t sound like much fun given the state of, um, everything, but quickly the series offers a micro-pivot from depressing COVID-19 prescience to offer a different, albeit equally depressing doomsday: our world won’t fall because of a virus, but rather fungi. Specifically one that can control the brain and survive the high temperatures of a human body thanks to evolving alongside the temperatures caused by global warming. Fun stuff, or fungi stuff, I suppose.
Flash-forward to 2003 and war vet Joel (Pascal) is minding his business as a contractor while trying to raise his teenage daughter in Texas. Everything seems fine until it quickly falls apart, with Mazin and co-showrunner Neil Druckmann (creator of the game) imagining the best kind of societal breakdown. Riots, military invasions, planes falling from the sky before bursting into fireballs: the first 20 minutes of The Last of Us rival Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake for delivering the most gripping and visceral pre-apocalypse carnage. And then the show unwraps one big shocker that, unless you’re familiar with the game’s narrative, represents a bold and bloody statement that nobody is safe in this terrifying world.
So far, so HBO. But then, The Last of Us’ origins begin to drag the series back to been-there-bitten-that zombie normalcy. Druckmann’s game gained such a loyal audience because its gameplay expertly aped the conventions of the undead thriller, putting gamers inside of and in control of a world that could have been crafted by zombie mastermind George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead). That might be an extremely fun reality to play in, but when you then adapt that experience for TV, you are left with the passive experience of watching a copy of a copy of a copy.
When the show jumps ahead two decades to find Joel working as a small-time smuggler in a military-controlled quarantine zone situated inside the ruins of Boston, it all just feels so familiar to the myriad postapocalyptic epics that originally inspired Druckmann’s game. Not just Romero’s films, but also 28 Days Later, Escape from New York and especially Children of Men.
This sense of Children of Men deja-vu is only doubled when the true plot of The Last of Us reveals itself midway through its first episode, as Joel is tasked by a group of antigovernment rebels with ferrying across the country a teenage girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey), who just might be the key to finding a cure. (Just in case you were wondering exactly how much Druckmann, and I suppose Mazin, admire Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant 2006 thriller, then just listen in the fourth episode for a snippet of King Crimson’s The Court of the Crimson King, a needle-drop shamelessly borrowed from the film.)
Certainly there are inspired moments and detours from the game sprinkled throughout the series. The third episode, a standalone story that puts Joel and Ellie on the back burner to focus on a lonely survivalist played by Nick Offerman (essentially reworking his Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson), is a frequently funny and ultimately heartbreaking journey. Thanks to the series being filmed in and around Calgary – the largest production to ever take up residence in Alberta – a handful of fantastic Canadian performers get standout moments, including Graham Greene and rising young star Lamar Johnson (soon to be seen in Clement Virgo’s Brother). And Pascal and Ramsey have real chemistry as a makeshift father-daughter duo.
But as hard as The Last of Us tries to convince its audience – and perhaps itself – that it can borrow from and elevate the zombie thriller, it is unable to deliver something genuinely new. The first season doesn’t quite represent a game-over situation. But if Manzin, Druckmann and their cable minders want to prove that HBO can do anything and everything, then they are going to have to level up for Season 2.
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