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The Last of Us TV Show Pilot Review

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The Last of Us brings apocalyptic intensity right from its opening episode, with spectacle and tragedy. Here’s a review of the HBO series’ pilot.

The Last of Us, the acclaimed video game series developed by Naughty Dog, has finally been adapted into a live-action television series produced by HBO, bringing the post-apocalyptic horror story to a new medium and both familiar and new audiences. Created for television by Neil Druckmann, who helmed the games’ development, and Craig Mazin, the Emmy Award-winning creator of HBO’s Chernobyl, the series has all the thematic and visual fidelity that fans of the games would want. Led by Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey, the pilot episode brings all due apocalyptic intensity and tragedy, drawing viewers in as it weaves an intimate and grueling tale of survival and family at the end of the world.

As with the games, a fungus-based infection sweeps around the world, causing those infected to transform into mindlessly feral zombies that quickly cause the collapse of modern civilization. As humanity struggles to survive in makeshift shelters and quarantine zones, Joel Miller crosses paths with a teenage girl named Ellie, who could hold the key to saving the world. The two quickly bond as they embark on an epic odyssey across the United States on foot, encountering and evading hordes of infected and roving bands of raiders in the ruins of the old world.

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Tess and Ellie in The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a masterclass in dialing up tension, with the pilot episode steadily building up an ominous atmosphere around Joel and his family before all hell absolutely breaks loose as the infection reaches their sleepy Texas suburb. Once the apocalypse begins and the infected rise, the action sequences that follow move at a breakneck pace, including a large set piece depicting Joel and his family on the run for their lives. The scene is one of the most gripping HBO has produced in years, with the perspective immersing the viewer in the middle of this harrowing escape from Armageddon.

What makes all this work is that Pascal, who is the dominant presence throughout the pilot, gets an enormous range to play with in the episode. From a loving father to an ordinary man placed in an extraordinary crisis to someone haunted by everything that they’ve lost, Pascal keeps The Last of Us rooted in its own sense of humanity and tragedy. Ramsey brings a fiery edge to Ellie, and Anna Torv delivers a level of subtle intrigue in her performance as Tess, but the opening episode is largely told from Joel’s perspective, and Pascal knocks it out of the park.

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Marlene from HBO's The Last of Us

The level of production value is noticeably high, with abandoned cityscapes and a visual aesthetic that fans of the game will instantly recognize. It has been reported that The Last of Us sports one of HBO’s larger production budgets, and between its ambitious action set pieces and detailed environments, it appears that this is money well spent. Though the memory of The Walking Dead is still very much fresh in the public’s mind, The Last of Us has always been a very different kind of post-apocalyptic zombie story, with a much more intimate and morally compromising focus. The premiere episode of the HBO series makes this abundantly clear.

The Last of Us very much feels like a show made for even the most scrutinizing fans but completely accessible for those unfamiliar with the video game source material. Pascal and Ramsey are off to a strong start in bringing their characters to life, with Pascal especially excelling with the emotionally extensive material he’s given in the opening episode. Lesser shows may have opted for a slow burn, but The Last of Us dives right into the apocalypse. It unites its two leads, keeping its audience’s attention squarely riveted on its searing narrative right from the jump, and it’s all the better for it.

Created by Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, The Last of Us premieres Jan. 15 at 9pm ET/PT on HBO.

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