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The Last of Us TV show | Critical Consensus

HBO's take on Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic road trip is as faithful as it gets; most critics loved it, but some questioned its necessity

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Video games adaptations have long been cursed. For decades, film makers tried adapting successful games IP and rarely came back victorious, for a variety of reasons from blatant disregard of the original material to lack of polish.

But the last few years have been refreshing, bringing quality game adaptations from a variety of sources, from family-friendly films like Sonic and Detective Pikachu, to hit Netflix series The Witcher (though its original material was a book before it became a game, The Witcher is largely acknowledged as a game adaptation).

Building on this momentum, a plethora of game adaptations have been announced in recent years, with The Last of Us TV series among the most awaited productions.

The result of a collaboration between Neil Druckmann (The Last of Us co-director and Naughty Dog co-president) and Craig Mazin (the creator of 2019's haunting hit series Chernobyl), this HBO adaptation saw its first episode air yesterday.

The Last of Us is considered by some as one of the best games of the past decade, so there was a fair amount of questioning about whether an adaptation could be as good as its original material. Turns out: it can.

"For anyone who has played the game, it is a sometimes surreal experience to see its most iconic moments handsomely rendered in live action"John Nugent, Empire

The HBO adaptation has been lauded by critics, and even seems to surpass the game according to some. At the time of writing, the Last of Us TV show had a 99% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it sat at 100% for a while when the embargo lifted on January 10), and 84% on Metacritic. (As a comparison, the original 2013 release on PS3 has a Metacritic of 95%, and its recently released PS5 version stands at 88%.)

For those unaware of The Last of Us' premise, it follows the path of Joel and Ellie as the former attempts to smuggle the latter out of a quarantine zone, as she may be the key to curing an infection that has led to the collapse of society as we know it.

Yes, The Last of Us is yet another post-apocalyptic zombie story, but it's more importantly the story of Joel and Ellie's relationship, and the handful of survivors – good and bad – around them. And as highlighted by many critics, the story seems to have translated impeccably to TV.

"Most striking, first of all, is how faithful a transfer this has been," wrote John Nugent in his 5/5 review for Empire. "For anyone who has played the game, it is a sometimes surreal experience to see its most iconic moments handsomely rendered in live action. But it never feels like you’re watching a video game."

In his review for The Washington Post, Gene Park confirmed that the "monsters are barely the focus" and also highlighted that, with this series, HBO finally answers the questions: "What if a big-budget TV or film adaptation stayed faithful to the source material, even repeating the same scenes, lines and big story beats?"

"There are scenes throughout the first season that are direct line reads of key scenes from the game," he added. "The nine episodes follow the exact same story beats and almost the same locations as the original game too. People who know the game by heart will likely be able to recite some lines right as they’re being spoken in the show."

He continued: "Because The Last of Us was already structured and written like a TV show, HBO’s rendition is primed to work – and it does. It treats most of the key scenes well, with doting respect. In some ways, the story is better for it, thanks to more granular insight into the lives of certain characters. [...] They feel less like characters in a 'side quest' in a game."

"Because The Last of Us was already structured and written like a TV show, HBO’s rendition is primed to work – and it does"Gene Park, The Washington Post

In her review for The Wrap, Karama Horne said that The Last of Us' narrative "utilises a monster-of-the-week style, which would seem predictable if more monsters were in it."

"Although Cordyceps beasts known to fans of the game all make appearances, it’s actually humans that provide the most significant threats in the show," she added.

Critics agreed that the show's meaningful exploration of characters (both main and supporting) is the highlight. The series shines both in the way it adapts the existing material but also in what it adds to it when it strays away to explore additional avenues.

"The team has done an excellent job of sticking close to the source material while also breathing life into new characters along the way, creating an engaging and refreshing rendering of a popular genre story," wrote Horne.

"Every episode, we meet new characters who spin in and out of Joel and Ellie’s orbit as they cross the country. Some help, some harm, but all provide context to the tapestry of The Last of Us universe while painting a rich backdrop of life after an extinction-level event."

Nugent noted that despite deviating "from its original blueprint" in places, "none of the major plot points are drastically changed."

"Several episodes go gloriously off-piste from before," he said. "Most riveting of all is the extraordinary, near-standalone third episode, which tells the full story of Bill, a previously very minor character now played by Nick Offerman."

In his review for The Washington Post, Gene Park confirmed that the "monsters are barely the focus"

In her review for Time, Judy Berman also lauded the show's characters, and echoed every critic's view concerning the quality of the cast's performances.

"Smartly cast and evocatively written, these side stories effectively evoke an emotional response. (Criers, be warned.) Even the surrogate parent-child bond that inevitably develops between Joel and Ellie transcends cliché thanks to the performances.

"Liberated from his Mandalorian mask, [Pedro] Pascal tempers Joel’s stoicism with glimpses of tenderness; you can see his protective-dad muscle memory kicking in despite his insistence that he sees Ellie as mere cargo. Alternately plucky, goofy, heartbreakingly naive and, necessarily, mature beyond her years, [Bella] Ramsey’s sensitive portrayal of her orphaned character might be the show’s greatest asset."

"The team has done an excellent job breathing life into new characters, creating an engaging and refreshing rendering of a popular genre story"Karama Horne, The Wrap

Park, who shared in his review that he's played The Last of Us "dozens of times over the years," said the HBO version "sometimes steals the show" next to its playable counterpart.

"That story is of a kind that could not have been told in the game. The game’s true magic lay in allowing players to embody Joel and Ellie. This meant the perspective of the story could never leave their eyes, lest we lose control as the audience. But in the show, the camera and the writing are finally liberated from the two leads, allowing new side stories to flourish, enriching our understanding of the world and its characters."

He continued: "Pascal and Ramsey also have a chemistry that just works. As someone familiar with the original game performances by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, I still saw the HBO portrayals as true to the characters of Joel and Ellie. The game focused on their journey’s most portentous scenes, but the show allows peeks into quieter, less busy moments. Again, there is more kindness here than the game could have allowed. Joel and Ellie, less hurried by the mandates of driving an action video game, are allowed to talk more, and on occasion, smile and laugh."

The show does have some missed opportunities though, as noted by Joshua Rivera in his review for Polygon.

"In their hurry to get moving and get to the next adapted set-piece, showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann continually breeze past characters that yearn to fill the space afforded by the story’s new medium," he wrote, having agreed that the moments where the story steps away from Ellie and Joel are "easily the best The Last of Us has to offer."

Rivera appreciated how HBO's The Last of Us treats the idea of community "seriously," especially compared to another big zombie show, The Walking Dead. But again, it's not perfect, and it's not necessarily new either.

"When you can choose your own apocalypse, it’s hard to say why anyone would pick this one"Joshua Rivera, Polygon

"The Last of Us isn’t rigorous in its exploration of these ideas – the show, like its source material, has a pretty clear view on what is the 'right' way to live in a community – but it’s just enough to make the series feel more hopeful than most of its peers in post-apocalyptic fiction. How much of that hope is felt will depend on the lens the viewer brings to the show, as it (in a blunder bafflingly similar to its source material) regularly has its queer/BIPOC characters violently killed.

"As a result, it’s hard to make a case for The Last of Us beyond its novelty as a video game adaptation. On its own, it’s one of dozens of zombie-filled wastelands that viewers can stream, from the US and beyond. When you can choose your own apocalypse, it’s hard to say why anyone would pick this one."

Over on Time, Berman did praise the show's undeniable qualities, but also pointed out that it's not reinventing the wheel.

"The show is by turns gorgeous and harrowing, brutal and warm. From the performances to the storytelling to the aesthetic elements, it’s an exquisitely made adaptation. But it also asks viewers to absorb a whole lot of human misery without saying much that we haven’t already heard in similar shows."

She continued: "The Last of Us is so skillfully, meticulously, and lovingly constructed – to call it TV’s best video game adaptation would be to damn it with faint praise – that it was tempting to ignore the question that nagged at me throughout each episode: What’s the point? It’s not that the characters’ motivations are muddled, or that the central dilemma of self vs society isn’t explored in enough depth. But that moral conflict, which resonated with so many fans of the game, isn’t exactly novel in this medium."

"The Last of Us is so skillfully constructed that it was tempting to ignore the question that nagged at me throughout each episode: What’s the point?"Judy Berman, Time

She added that she was unsure whether HBO's The Last of Us had "comparable insight to offer" next to other critically and commercially successful post-apocalyptic shows such as The Leftovers and Station Eleven.

"A game that interrogates your ethics is a game that teaches you about yourself," she wrote. "In the form of beautifully rendered, often devastating TV, the effect is less illuminating and more masochistic. What’s the point of putting yourself through so much vicarious suffering, at a time when everyday life offers plenty of the real thing, if you’re not going to come out the other side any wiser?"

So The Last of Us TV series misses might not have hit the bullseye for everyone (Horne also noted issues with pacing), but for most, it comes very close to it.

Empire's Nugent praised a fully realised world with a "staggering sense of scale," as well as "grand cinematography, and lavish production design" concluding that it's "comfortably the best adaptation of a video game ever made."

"One that deepens the game’s dystopian lore, while staying true to its emotional core. Like the game, it’s a masterpiece, too."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar

Marie Dealessandri

Deputy Editor

Marie Dealessandri joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.