I have mixed feelings about HBO’s adaptation of the heralded Naughty Dog video game “The Last of Us.”
Some times I’m blown away by how great it is, and then I see through the pixilated patina and it seems both cheap and gimmicky.
Major spoilers ahead, obviously…
Why It’s One of the Best
The chemistry between leads: There hasn’t been a duo like Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) since Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) tore it up in “Breaking Bad” It’s that good. TV, unlike movies, is wholly dependent upon the leads having great chemistry, and this is pure magic.
The production values: This show is gorgeous to look at with high-quality sets and fascinating world building. It’s the kind of landscape you want to spend time in and walk around.
The quick pacing: Wow, did this season move fast in both time and geography. The show covers almost 30 years from outbreak to current events and from Boston to Salt Lake City in terms of geography. That’s mostly on foot, and yet it never felt rushed.
The creatures: I love the different animals from horses to giraffes that populate this world. It makes no sense to me that if giraffes are hanging out that there wouldn’t also be a ton of wolves, feral dogs and cats, coyotes – heck, even other exotic animals like lions, tigers and bears. It lends a mystical element to the storytelling.
The fascinating backstories: I loved this the most… the little vignettes of how the virus began, how Ellie came to be, how various characters met and fell in love. They really were a delight.
… yet there are times when I felt dropkicked right out of the illusion into what seemed ridiculous… here’s what went terribly wrong.
Why It’s One of the Worst
The boss fighting: In video games you face ever tougher challenges in the form of “bosses.” In “The Last of Us” we go from the Kansas City boss (head of the Kansas City “Fireflies” resistant movement) Kathleen Coghlan (Melanie Lynskey) right to David (Scott Shepherd) where Ellie has her big battle.
The only problem is (and maybe this is because I didn’t play the game) I didn’t understand or care who David was. Yes, he was a cannibal (but that’s nothing new to zombie/virus stories) and a pedophile, which I admit I didn’t pick up on right away, but his death wasn’t triumphant just predictable, inevitable.
I’ve played enough video games that my conditioned response was, “Okay who is going to be next…”
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Too dependent on insider information: “Game of Thrones” slowly introduced us to its world and there were plenty of online resources to support the viewing, but we have less so with “Us.” When the show is at its worst it’s like a bunch of clips of a different, better show strung together to approximate a story with depth.
It felt at times like watching someone play a video game: This was a common complaint, but the “get the ladder” scene had me scrambling for my controller. That’s the fundamental difference between movies/television and video games… the controller… as they hit different parts of the brain.
Without a doubt, one could argue the best episode had nothing to do with the video game and that was the love story between Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett).
It’s not next-gen storytelling: The problem is that “The Last of Us” is still wrapped around the monomyth (see Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey) and so even if you break up the structure a la Tarantino it’s still the same narrative.
Ellie might be a different kind of hero while Joel is pretty standard, but it’s going to hit the same beats again and again. Most video games are hero stories, and if Disney and Marvel have proven anything is that we are collectively plum-tuckered out from hero stories.
It’s wholly redundant and derivative: How many zombie/virus stories do we need? I admit that I loved the father/daughter trapped in a zombie world angle, but the biggest knock against “The Last of Us” is that the zombies so far were irrelevant and hardly appear on screen except for one ex machina moment where Joel and Ellie are saved by a zombie swarm.
You could have dropped the zombies and told this story as a straight drama with Joel losing his daughter and then finding his fatherhood come alive with a stranger in trouble. Said another way, if you love monster stories like I do, then those five or so minutes when the zombies were a part of the show were a big let down.
The show’s impressive ratings all but guarantee a second season, but if the show ended now, with Joel being the big bad, the ultimate “daddy” having his love becoming the most destructive force in the universe (his saving of Ellie preventing a cure from being discovered) well, that would be perfect.
It might even tip the scales in the show’s favor to being one of the best ever made.
Bill and Frank was the worst episode of the show in my opinion and not because it was a forced gay romance. It took us away from the two characters needlessly. In the game when Joel see’s what Bill has become it leads him to realize that he must soften himself unless he wants to become like him. Bill is alone, paranoid and miserable. His personality drove Frank to suicide. The show tries to do the same but by taking us on a massive detour to watch two men engage in an awkward love affair until they die.