Given the quite frankly atrocious track record of video game adaptations for both the big and small screen over the years - only last year, Netflix's Resident Evil TV series was cancelled after one season following lukewarm reviews - you could certainly understand any trepidation around The Last Of Us. Naughty Dog's 2013 survival horror is a modern classic, and even in the capable hands of HBO, the bar to produce something worthy of such a generational title seemed improbably high.
On the evidence of last night's first episode, however, we needn't have worried; The Last Of Us looks set to be every bit as thrilling, terrifying and heartbreaking as its namesake. Whether you've played the games ten times over or have never owned a games console, Craig Mazin's brutal introduction to a dystopian, pandemic-ravaged North America and the characters that inhabit it is never less than gripping. Opening with a plot-telegraphing TV debate between two scientists about the potential dangers of a 'zombie' fungal infection that could adapt to live inside human beings, the series premiere wastes no time in getting the how out of the way, allowing us to leap straight into the action.
Well, kinda. We do get to spend a little more time with our initial core cast - hardworking, sarcastic dad Joel (Pedro Pascal), his cocky but sweet daughter Sarah (Nico Parker) and problematic but well-meaning younger brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna) - than we do in the game, and the extra smidge of world-building makes what follows all the more devastating. We won't spoil things for those that didn't play the game, but for those that did, rest assured: even when you know exactly what's coming, it doesn't make it any less impactful.
Soon, we fast-forward twenty years to a post-apocalyptic Boston, complete with totalitarian rulers and rebellion-seeking freedom fighters, including a fearsome showing from Merle Dandridge, who resumes her role as Fireflies leader Marlene from the games. Aesthetically echoing Alfonso Cuarón's fantastic Children Of Men, the show is also fiercely faithful to its source material (original Last Of Us creator Neil Druckman co-runs the series with Mazin), showcasing a dirty, downtrodden and desperate vision of a society ravaged by a nightmarish disease.
While the episode's horror elements are mostly kept to the first half (and yes, they are scary as shit), Mazin rarely lets the tension dip throughout, bolstered by powerful performances from a compelling cast. Parker, Luna and Anna Torv as Joel's embattled partner, Tess, all put in magnetic performances, but it is really Pedro Pascal's traumatised but determined Joel that anchors the whole thing, a pitch-perfect piece of casting. Also brilliant is Game Of Thrones' Bella Ramsey, whose defiant but vulnerable Ellie injects enough energy into proceedings to make sure the show is never too bogged down by its emotionally heavy themes.
Climaxing with a nail-bitingly tense face-off involving a corrupt guard, a surprise reveal and an ingenious use of Depeche Mode's Never Let Me Down Again, The Last Of Us's first outing makes it abundantly clear that, as desperate as our characters' plight seems thus far, it appears their troubles are only beginning.
On the basis of this first episode, The Last Of Us isn't just a rare adaptation of a game that looks set to be pretty damn good. It looks set to be one of the essential television events of 2023.
The Last Of Us is available to stream through NOW TV (opens in new tab) in the UK.
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