Fear the Fungal Dead – The Last of Us (2023) Series Premiere

Based on the popular video game series, HBO hopes that its new apocalyptic survival horror drama The Last of Us will be the television event of the season, the type of show that inspires enthusiastic water cooler discussion after every episode. The network specializes in that type of thing, so it’s not an unreasonable expectation. The big question in this case is whether, after more than a decade of The Walking Dead, its spinoffs, and various knockoffs, the zombie genre really has any surprises left to offer TV viewers. Has this series simply arrived too late in the game, so to speak?

The other major hurdle this particular show must face is overcoming its video game origins. Movies and TV series based on games have a long and sordid history of, to be blunt about it, totally sucking. Even in the rare instance that one turns out halfway watchable, like last year’s Halo, it will inevitably face the wrath of angry gamers incapable of tolerating even the most minor divergence from their beloved gaming canon. (Having just cited it, I can already sense that hordes of short-tempered Halo fans are seething with rage to “correct” my opinion of the worst TV show they’ve ever seen in their lives. Go ahead, prove me wrong.)

The Last of Us (2023) - Bella Ramsey as Ellie
Title:The Last of Us
Episode:1.01 – When You’re Lost in the Darkness
Release Date: Jan. 15, 2023
Watched On: HBO Max
Also Available On:HBO (linear cable)

One major advantage The Last of Us has is that the show was developed for and airs on HBO, the home of many popular and respected prestige series. That gives it an automatic cachet that Halo didn’t have. With its enviable track record, most viewers are inclined to give HBO the benefit of the doubt. Further, this adaptation comes from Neil Druckmann, creator of the original game, and Craig Mazin, producer of 2019’s Emmy-winning Chernobyl miniseries. These two men should have some credibility. The show has also been blessed with an obviously large budget to envision its post-apocalyptic scenario.

The premiere episode opens with a flashback to 1968, in which a pair of epidemiologists (John Hannah from Transplant and Christopher Heyerdahl from Hell on Wheels) appear on a TV talk show to discuss the theoretical possibility of fungus evolving to infect human hosts and take control of their brains. When the distressed host asks what would happen in such an event, the coldly logical answer is, “We lose.”

Already, I realize that genre purists are itching to argue that fungus monsters aren’t the same thing as zombies. The victims aren’t technically undead. They can be killed in most of the same ways regular humans can. In traditional lore, zombies are created by a viral infection. Whatever. That’s all semantics. The victims are mindless monsters seemingly incapable of conscious thought, instinctively motivated to do nothing more than attack other humans and spread their infection at all costs. That’s close enough to a zombie for me.

The main protagonist of the story is Joel Miller (The Mandalorian‘s Pedro Pascal), a former Army veteran who suffers a terrible tragedy when the fungal pandemic sweeps over the world in 2003, effectively ending modern civilization. Flash forward twenty years and we find him living in the ruined city of Boston, where a safe zone for survivors is controlled by a militant agency called FEDRA. When his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) fails to make a scheduled radio contact, Joel and his girlfriend Tess (Anna Torv from Fringe) make plans to sneak out of the city – the punishment for which is public execution – and travel west to Wyoming to find him. Before they can leave, they’re accosted by Marlene (Merle Dandridge, who performs the same character in the games), the leader of an anti-FEDRA resistance movement. She persuades them to smuggle a teenage girl named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) out of the city with them to deliver to her allies. Doing so faces some complications, and leads to an important revelation about why Ellie is so important to Marlene. (That part isn’t too difficult to guess.)

I’m going to admit right here that I’ve never played The Last of Us video game, and have no stake in the argument about whether the show is faithful enough or lives up to it. Promo clips comparing the two suggest that the show follows the first game pretty closely, down to duplicating important scenes. I honestly don’t care about any of that. I just want a good TV show.

Obviously, with just a pilot available, it’s too soon to cast judgment. However, at the very least, it does start well. The show is well written and acted, and has the sort of impeccable production values that come standard with HBO. The premiere is kind of a slow burn at first as it slowly builds tension and lays the groundwork for the chaos to follow, but once the shit finally hits the fan, the episode reveals an impressive scope.

All the same, as soon as it was over, my wife – who has watched all of The Walking Dead with me – asked if this show would really bring anything new to the table. I honestly don’t have an answer to that. I mean, sure, it’s a different type of zombie, but this sort of apocalyptic story has already been explored pretty thoroughly. One can certainly hope for a tighter narrative that doesn’t drag on for endless repetitive seasons, and producer Mazin has suggested that he has a clear endgame. That’s appreciated. Does it justify the need for the show to exist? I don’t know yet.

The Last of Us (2023) - The Infected

Video Streaming

The Last of Us is one of the few HBO or HBO Max original series to stream on the latter in 4K HDR. Even with that being the case, this one bucks the current trend by remaining framed in a traditional 16:9 aspect ratio. (A huge and ever-growing number of streaming and cable shows employ wider ratios these days.) The image quality is very sharp and detailed, with some light grain (almost certainly artificial) added for texture and mood. Colors are generally good, but the premiere episode has a red push that tends to make other colors look oversaturated. That’s most prominent in the flashback prologue and might have been done for effect, but is still present through most of the episode.

The HDR grading adds a lot of depth to the image, especially during the nighttime scenes where vivid highlights from flashlights, car headlights, and fire blaze off the screen.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is subtle at first. I feared that it might be a lazy effort when an early jet flyover effect failed to noticeably utilize any of my height speakers. However, later scenes involving planes and especially helicopters buzzed across the top of the room more convincingly. The soundtrack has a moderate amount of bass, and dynamics are probably better than most TV series I’ve watched recently, but I still felt that my subwoofers didn’t hit as hard as I might have liked them to.


2 thoughts on “Fear the Fungal Dead – The Last of Us (2023) Series Premiere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s