james debate
james debate

Saturday 11 March 2023

Created by Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann
Network HBO
Starring Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey
Genre Post-apocalyptic Drama
Running Time 45-80 minutes

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It is the TV series of 2023, so far, that everyone is talking about. But it's a smash hit that few saw coming. After all, The Last of Us is a videogame adaptation, one based on that most tired of genres, the zombie survival horror. By all accounts, it's not a concept that should have yielded anything of value. But HBO didn't see it that way and they were willing to invest the considerable talents of Craig Mazin, creator of the award winning Chernobyl into bringing this project to life. It's a gamble that seems to have paid off.

So how have HBO managed to pull this sleight of hand and succeed beyond all expectation? I think it is important to preface this discussion by stating that I have played the original game, although I was never a particularly big fan of it. I think The Last of Us, the videogame, is a perfectly decent title that has been hyped beyond all reason, lavished with praise for its storytelling which, in truth, is no more impressive that any number of other titles in gaming. I mention this in order to provide context when I say that, while I find the original source material to be slightly overrated, the TV series is absolutely brilliant.

Conceptually, The Last of Us sounds just like any number of post-apocalyptic zombie stories. A parasitic disease sweeps the world, turning people into zombies, resulting in the collapse of civilisation. The survivors struggle through a post-apocalyptic world where they must contend both with the overt horrors of the infected, as well as the hidden horrors of humanity's own greed and cruelty. Our free-spirited livewire of a main character Ellie makes a road trip across the post-apocalyptic United States with her gruff, emotionally repressed surrogate father figure, Joel, in the hopes of finding a cure and, well, saving the world.

There's a few things that elevate The Last of Us beyond the typical, beginning with the backstory and depiction of the crisis itself. There is nothing supernatural behind this zombie apocalypse, nor is it some lazy macguffin cooked up in a lab. Rather it is a cautionary tale based on a plausible, if highly unlikely extrapolation of real science, one that arises as a direct consequence of man-driven climate change. Second, and most important, is the focus on complex character-driven stories rather than gore and action. This world is full of deeply human stories. A young man who compromises his own integrity in order to protect his younger brother, an unlikely romance forged in the fire of apocalypse, a grieving father given a second chance to redeem himself for the child he was not able to save.

In many ways, the zombies themselves exist in the background of this story. The Last of Us is really about how we treat one another and how different people cope with extreme circumstances. It is these moments in particular, the attempts to find little pockets of humanity and hope in an utterly dystopian setting, that are most effective. In a genre where the character arcs are usually skin-deep contrivances to bridge the gap between zombie splatter and chainsaws, this is not really something we have seen before, at least not to this great an extent. These elements are all present in the games already, which is why they have been so well received, but the TV series takes it so much further, expanding and fleshing out nearly everything.

Then there is the execution. The Last of Us begins with a masterclass in world building, filling in hours' worth of detailed lore and alternative history through news headlines, talk show clips and flashbacks. It's an extremely elegant method for filling in the audience in a way that doesn't feel like soulless exposition and doesn't take too long to arrive at the dramatic story beats. These moments also do a fantastic job of fleshing out the world into something that feels lived in and real, showing us the societal and cultural impact of these moments, beyond just the action of the central narrative.

HBO also deserve great credit for taking such a bold and experimental format. This is a series so confident in its world building that it frequently has the bravery to break away from its main characters entirely to show alternate perspectives and stories set in this world. This is most notable in the third episode, essentially a self-contained film centred around two characters only briefly mentioned in the games. This is one of the finest episodes of television I have seen in years and has been widely acclaimed in particular. I would be stunned if it did not garner recognition come awards season.

I have already spoken about the depth of the characters, but crucially this is matched in the casting. If he wasn't already after The Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal is now a bona fide star, but in particular this series will surely serves as a launching point for the bright career of co-star Bella Ramsey. Even the smaller roles and guest parts are performed with aplomb, with that third episode's starring duo of Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett both being tipped for awards.

It goes without saying that The Last of Us stands as one of the best videogame adaptations of all time, admittedly not the highest of bars. But this an excellent series by any standard, one that stands out in a crowded genre and delivers a sublime example of to blend horror with character-driven storytelling.

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