Survival is the name of the game in HBO’s “The Last of Us,” a nine-part drama based on a beloved video game about the end of the world. A parasitic fungus has turned much of the human population into blood-sucking zombies, leaving the rest of humanity to fight off the infected — and to battle each other for whatever precious resources are left.
If this post-everything premise sounds familiar, that’s because it is: “The Walking Dead” and its spinoffs, “Station Eleven,” “Sweet Tooth” and dozens of other notable series have imagined a world ravaged by plague, mutations genetic and otherwise, and more doomsday horrors that remind us how lucky we are to have made it this far into a pandemic without eating one another.
But “The Last of Us,” which premieres Sunday with a 90-minute episode, is a prestige drama based on a prestige video game, with quality distinctions that place this story in a league of its own. That’s not to say that ghoulish fight scenes are a bad thing, or that this version of “The Last of Us” is a gentle story. The living undergo a gruesome transformation when bitten by the infected and pulverizing the undead(ish) is a gory pastime. (And damn is it satisfying.)
Still, permeating the writing, production and performances are an underlying beauty and grace that make navigating the grim realities of this decaying world a little less horrific, be it a sunbeam through a dirty window illuminating the delicate design of faded wallpaper or a nuanced, silent moment between lovers. There’s tenderness in this hellscape, and the meaningful relationships between characters make us care about them from the first few moments of the show. Like the 2013 game on which it’s based, the television adaptation is such a gripping tale of survival because it makes ample room for savagery and love, desperation and selflessness.
Pedro Pascal knocks it out of the park as grizzled survivor Joel, a loving single father who loses everything in the first few days of the 2003 outbreak. Twenty years later, he’s an empty husk of a man with killer instincts and sharpshooter skills. He’s thrown together with teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a smart-mouthed orphan who may hold the key to a cure. From Boston to Colorado, they contend with militarized government forces, separatist fighters, marauders, lone survivalists and the occasional empathetic figure in need of help as they make their way across the country. But the greatest threat is losing hope, or each other.
With each episode, their journey brings us into new networks of survival, brought to life by stunning set design — bombed-out cities, stagnating suburbs, the majesty of nature when mankind recedes — and an enviable cast: Melanie Lynskey, Nick Offerman, Murray Bartlett, Gabriel Luna. The show reportedly cost upward of $10 million per episode, which is perhaps why HBO announced just two days before the premiere that the monthly subscription price was increasing from $14.99 to $15.99. A clear sign of the End Times.
The first couple hours of “The Last of Us” stick so closely to the original narrative that it may be eerie for folks who grew up playing the game. But prior knowledge of the saga is not required to become entangled in this rich drama. The series, co-created by the game’s architect, Neil Druckmann, and “Chernobyl” showrunner Craig Mazin, is an enthralling experience — no prowess with a DualShock controller required.
‘The Last of Us’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Streaming: HBO Max, any time starting Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)