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REVIEW: 'The Last of Us' is a masterful leap from video game to TV

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‘The Last of Us’ conquers game to streaming TV jump in thrilling first episode. Screencap from HBO MAX/YOUTUBE

Watching the first episode of HBO’s new original series “The Last of Us” was simultaneously a déjà vu and jamais vu experience.

If you’ve played the videogames as much as I have (especially the first one), then you’ll quickly recognize the shape and architecture of the levels within the scenes.

There’s the quarantine zone (QZ) where our grizzled and world-weary anti-hero Joel, played by Pedro Pascal (“The Mandalorian”), finds himself after surviving the initial wave of infection. Full of familiar happenings, the QZ is run by FEDRA, the alphabet pseudo-health agency ala FEMA militarized to deal with a pandemic where the infected maim and bite to spread itself to other hosts.

The QZ is a place more like a prison than a sanctuary. A milieu made all too real and uncomfortable by our own experiences with COVID-19 quarantine.

For gamers like me, watching that first episode was like half-trivia, half-counting cars. Oftentimes, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that punishment happened to those unfortunate guys right there,” or “I walked down this alley in Joel’s shoes to the haunting music by Gustavo Santaolalla. And over there, past that checkpoint, I encountered so and so.” What’s really eerie is how HBO re-lensed it all through the writing of original games creative director Neil Druckmann (co-President of Naughty Dog Studios) and the help of screenwriter Craig Mazin (writer of “Chernobyl”, another HBO original series). They combined their creative powers to produce an adaptation from both old and new ideas. This made the visual angles and the frisson of that tutorial level deviate a considerable distance in the series, which makes for an aptly cinematic feel.The bombed out Boston un-cityscapes, an urbanity haunted by extreme absence, and the dwellings of man receding as nature takes over —all contribute to the disquieting feel of survival horror albeit in only slightly familiar perspectives.

I have been here before in 2013 with Playstation dual-shock in hand. I have not been here at all. It’s eerie. It’s exciting. Which is to say: good news! The narrative spirit of what this emotional adventure is all about is pretty intact.

It’s 20 years after the parasitic fungus Cordyceps jumped species and hijacked people’s brains, turning most of humanity into mindless monsters. That’s it. That’s all you need to know going in. You don’t need to have played the games. Simply plop yourself on the couch and enjoy the ride of another dramatic post-apocalypse story with a new-ish kind of zombie.

Pedro Pascal as Joel and Bella Ramsey as Ellie in "The Last of Us." Photo from HBO

HBO has done this mainly through the marriage of old videogame writing and episodic TV writing. And more so through intelligent casting with outstanding performances. This nine-part prestige drama — based on an equally prestigious video game — has put amazing actors Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal in the lead roles they seemed born for.

The story circles around Joel Miller (Pascal), a smuggler tasked with transporting Ellie (Ramsey) —a teen who has a very important package that could better fight the virus —from Boston to Colorado. Throughout the journey, the duo will encounter bandits, marauders, lone survivalists, and plenty of the Cordyceps-infected.

Their performances are a great entry point for folks who’ll come into this series completely cold. Especially those who were made curious since their gamer buddy or gamer family member has been bugging them about it.

With a kick-ass performance by Anna Torv (“Mindhunter”) as Tess, the toughest smuggler on the block, plus stunning creature and set design, the post-pandemic world comes to life. Vistas of bombed-out urban decay, suburbs overrun by animals and fauna, the little waving fingers peeking through the mouths of the Cordyceps-infected, the shock of an unmoving zombie on a wall too far gone into the disease — it all reminded me why the first game was so exciting in the first place.

Bella Ramsey is easily an ingénue firebrand. Their Ellie has echoes of the spunky noble Lyanna Mormont they played in “Game of Thrones.” Now there is considerably more nuance and breathing space for her to flex her acting. I can’t think of anyone else being cast in this role now. Ramsey has captured lighting in a bottle: what a teen girl who’s grown up in an apocalyptic world sans civilization is like — upbeat and unflappable, knowing the necessity and economics of violence like the back of her hand.

Ramsey and Anna Torv as Tess in "The Last of Us." Photo from HBO

Pascal is no less amazing. We first get to know Joel Miller, a blue-collar single father from Texas, at the beginning of the Cordyceps plague. Through his everyman eyes we are introduced to the violence of the day it hit America as he and his daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) experience the chaos and surreal nature of seeing firsthand how fast the virus spreads. After losing everything in that first wave, we follow Joel in a sizeable fast forward jump to 20 years later, where he’s just going through the motions of living.

I had doubts whether both “Game of Thrones” alums could breathe life to the videogame characters, especially Pascal for the brusque, Southern-drawling Joel. But Pascal’s grizzled and world-weary countenance is actually even better here. First seeing him at the QZ, he struck me as a guy who looks like all days are just variations of bad days.

I had doubts whether both “Game of Thrones” alums could breathe life to the videogame characters, especially Pascal for the brusque, Southern-drawling Joel. But Pascal’s grizzled and world-weary countenance is actually even better here. Photo from HBO

What makes Joel and Ellie’s dynamic special is the same chemistry they had in the games, an example that shows how we define being human in the worst of all possible worlds is up to us. It’s a cliché, but the touching story of a gruff veteran and a relatively innocent young one still holds so much emotive possibility and power, especially in a hero’s journey across America.

The bar was set high when the first “The Last of Us” game came out in 2013 and word spread (as reflected in sales) to push it to instant classic status not unlike a species-jumping viral tangent. The game wasn’t meant to be a cult favorite, either. It was across the board that folks wanted it labeled as one of the best video games ever. Period. Yet, I can also relate to the dismissiveness or caution expressed by non-fans and non-gamers. For every enjoyable “Mortal Kombat” or “Resident Evil” movie (but only the first installments!), there’s a cringe-worthy “Warcraft” or “Assassins Creed.” The money-hungry studios have always viewed these adaptations as cash cows.

This series avoids the pitfalls of all those bad apples. The best adaptations don't just imitate their source material but aim to enrich them. See, even if you’ve played the games, there’s no guarantee that you'll be able to tell specifically where the episodes are going or what's coming next. It seems like there are plenty of scenes and sections in the series that simply wouldn't have made sense in the game.

Fanboys should still keep an eye out though, since am told original Joel voice actor Troy Baker and original Ellie voice actor Ashley Johnson will have cameos.

All in all, even from a first episode viewing, we have to credit how much care and intelligent choices were made to craft this series in its prestige quality. I can’t wait to watch the rest of the episodes.

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Watch “The Last of Us” through HBO GO.