SERIES "The Last of Us"
WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT'S ABOUT As the planet warms, a once harmless fungus called Cordyceps has mutated into a virulent killer that has turned much of the world's population into zombies, while the uninfected are mostly trapped inside "QZ's" — quarantine zones patrolled by ruthless squads of government militia. Finally, a potential savior — Ellie (Bella Ramsey, "Game of Thrones"), who may be immune. Joel (Pedro Pascal) has been tasked by resistance leader Marlene (Merle Dandridge) to smuggle the teenager to a safe site in Wyoming, and hopes to be reunited with kid brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) along the way.
This 10-parter — from veteran screenwriter Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann — is an adaptation of Druckmann's hit video game of the same name, and includes at least one new character, Frank (Murray Bartlett), who meets up with uber-survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman).
MY SAY So, let's see if we've got this right. The most important new series on HBO since "House of the Dragon" is essentially a redo of "The Walking Dead?" (Really?!)
In fact, not really at all. There are obvious points of comparison, but most zombie movies and TV shows usually share those (blighted post-apocalyptic landscapes, survivors who must navigate them, and, umm, zombies). What's really different here is that game.
Bowing to a rapturous reception back in 2013, "The Last of Us"' was what's called a third-person shooter game, meaning the player is always looking over the shoulder of a character who has a name (Joel and Ellie) and entire back story.
Characters mean narrative, and "The Last of Us" had a cinematic one. For that reason, would-be adapters circled and Mazin won the lottery — a surprising choice given that his most prominent contributions to pop culture so far have been the Emmy-winning (and superb) "Chernobyl," and the screenplay for "The Hangover Part II."
In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, an "exasperated" Mazin said the only thing TV reporters had wanted to ask him was, "what are the challenges of adapting a video game?" — a loaded question because most game-to-TV adaptations flop, but not necessarily a wrong question either.
After all, why adapt a game when the game itself is good enough? Change the plot too much and the trolls — a form of online zombie, if you will — go on the attack. Change too little and you defeat the whole purpose of adapting.
What Mazin has done instead is thread a middle course. Game plot elements are left largely intact while a new character and storyline (Offerman and Bartlett's) arrive by the third episode. You can almost sense Mazin's relief over the course of this hour. Freed of the shackles of a preset story, it's effective (and affecting), also the best of the early episodes.
The horror elements overall are quite good, and the zombies (they're called other names here) are too. With heads covered in fungal excrescence, they snap to attention when fresh meat drifts by. They're all mindless automatons awaiting release. As with those in the game, that comes at the end of a barrel of a gun (or knife, bomb, car, you-name-it).
But like "The Walking Dead," "The Last of Us" is not really about the zombies but about the living. One little boy gets around to asking the essential question that drives the entire series: If you turn into a monster, are you still a monster inside? From the lips of children, because "The Last of Us" is about an America shorn of civility, wracked by hatred, where the rule of law is as dead (or as chaotic) as the dead themselves.
Sure, "The Last of Us'' will be a hit because shows with guns, zombies, violence and apocalyptic wastelands always are. But it should be a hit for a better reason — as a cautionary tale about our lesser angels.
BOTTOM LINE Superior zombie series that takes a little too long to get around to what it's really about — us.