The Last of Us is everything The Walking Dead wishes it could be
It's about zombies, but also so much more.
Kia ora and welcome back to Rec Room, The Spinoff’s pop culture and entertainment newsletter. I hope you’re starting 2023 rested, reinvigorated and fired with resolve to consume even more pop culture than last year. As for me, I’m finally watching the superb Le Bureau des Légendes (The Bureau) – which, outrageously, is still not streaming anywhere in New Zealand – and I haven’t had much time or inclination to dig into anything else. Riding to the rescue is my colleague Chris Schulz, guesting this week with a review of The Last of Us, the post-apocalyptic thriller that arrives on Neon tonight. The first great TV show of 2023? Chris certainly thinks so.
- Catherine McGregor
The Last of Us is everything The Walking Dead wishes it could be
Memories of the undead are everywhere in The Last of Us, the umpteenth apocalypse show to land on our TV screens. Flesh-eating zombies bite at necks and tear at flesh. Trapped "clickers" and "stalkers" inhabit abandoned homes and roam city streets. They shriek like demon banshees, hunting humans for a quick feast. "Bloaters" inflate to the size of small buildings and thud through city streets like nightmare versions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
They're there, but The Last of Us isn’t really about any of that. Instead, HBO's big budget adaptation of the 2013 Playstation video game, one many consider the best ever made, wisely focuses on Ellie, the tough-talking, wise-cracking, old-before-her-time survivor, played here to insubordinate perfection by Game of Thrones standout Bella Ramsey. She has plenty of gun and knife skills, and little time for idiots. She may also be carrying humanity's last gasp inside her.
It’s also about Joel, a stubborn apocalypse veteran played by Pedro Pascal. Jaded and psychologically wounded, he’s hoping to collect a pay day by couriering Ellie through the apocalypse and into the hands of those who can help. For those who’ve played the game, or it’s ultra-violent 2020 sequel, you already know what happens next. It's one of the best stories – and most shocking finales – across any pop culture medium of the past 10 years. There’s no need to spoil those surprises here.
Ellie (Bella Ramsey) and Joel (Pedro Pascal) in The Last of Us. (Photo: HBO)
Wisely, The Last of Us spends most of its time with these two as they reluctantly trek across the American wasteland. The game's beautifully tilted buildings, infected basements, abandoned hospitals and bombed cities are all present and correct. Because this is from Craig Mazin, the showrunner responsible for Cherenobyl, another show about an apocalypse, The Last of Us looks incredible, a widescreen epic that should be seen in movie theatres, not on phones or laptops.
The action, when it happens, is intense, violent, and visceral. But it's Joel and Ellie's growing relationship that powers The Last of Us. It’s because of them, not zombies, that you’ll fall in love with it, possibly after episode two, definitely after episode three. That’s because the show also finds room for detours. Across that 71-minute episode, an apocalyptic love story plays out with barely a zombie in sight.
You will laugh, you will cry, your heart will ache, and you will immediately want to watch it again. It’s so good, it will surely go down among the year’s best TV episodes, maybe the decade's.
The TV wasteland is filled with the lifeless bodies of TV shows that can’t quite get this apocalypse thing right. Netflix’s Black Summer lasted two bloodthirsty seasons. Despite topping cable TV ratings for years, The Walking Dead got stuck on a farm in season two and never recovered. By the time Negan beat Glenn to death at the beginning of season seven, most hoped he was putting the final nail in the show's bleak coffin. Others, including several Walking Dead spinoffs, have tried, and failed.
But that's not the only obstacle The Last of Us overcomes. Precious few video game adaptations have lived up to their source material. “Can The Last of Us break the curse of bad video-game adaptations?” asks a recent New Yorker story. Yes, it can, and yes, it does. It is addictive apocalyptic viewing that feels eerily prescient, with early scenes of infections and hazmat suits reminiscent of early Covid times.
Right now, a mutating virus is an easily understandable concept to anyone who survived the last three years. Throw in a real, heartfelt relationship, gorgeous cinematography, and occasional zombie mayhem, and the results are compulsive, addictive viewing that are going to dominate the discourse over the next nine weeks. (Neon) / Chris Schulz
Documentary rec: Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street
In terms of sheer numbers of victims, few criminals can hold a candle to Bernie Madoff, the architect of the largest Ponzi scheme in history. The story of his rise and fall is told in Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street, a four-part documentary full of eye-popping numbers, including the US$65bn purported size of Madoff’s “investment fund” and the 150-year prison sentence he received after it all came crashing down. Most damning of all is the number eight: that’s how many years it took for regulators to finally take action against Madoff after first receiving detailed evidence of his fraud back in 2000. In the intervening years thousands more investors were drawn in, and billions more dollars siphoned out. While the fraud at the centre of the story is horrifyingly simple, some complicated concepts are unavoidable in a documentary like this. Thank goodness, then, for the delightfully wry Diana B. Henriques, author of the definitive Madoff biography, who holds the viewer’s hand through a morass of financial jargon while precisely skewering a “financial sociopath” who ruined countless lives. (Netflix)
Drama rec: Rogue Heroes
Jack O’Connell, Connor Swindells and Alfie Allen star in Rogue Heroes (Photo: BBC)
It took me a while to warm to Rogue Heroes, the BBC series about the formation of the SAS that landed on TVNZ+ a few months ago. Based on episode one, it seemed all style over substance, a Guy Ritchie knock-off with East London swapped out for Egypt. Over the Christmas break I gave it another go – and tore through the remaining five episodes in a couple of nights. Based on Ben Macintyre’s bestseller of the same name and created by Peaky Blinders showrunner Steven Knight, Rogue Heroes is a classic tale of WWII derring-do but with a soundtrack featuring AC/DC, Motorhead and The Fall(!), and “heroes” who are thugs, malcontents and, in the case of Ulster-born Lieutenant Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell), a poetry-loving borderline psychopath. For all the machismo and violence (and, fair warning, some scenes are truly brutal) it’s hard not to get swept up in the story, the facts of which almost defy belief. But as we’re reminded in the opening credits, “the events depicted which seem most unbelievable … are mostly true”. (TVNZ+)
On The Spinoff Podcast Network: Predicting the 2023 election date
It's election year! In the coming weeks Jacinda Ardern will reveal the date of the upcoming general election. In this Gone By Lunchtime bonus episode, Toby Manhire uses his superior deduction skills to predict the date before its announcement.
I loved this nostalgic look back at the lost world of DVD menus, once a place for Easter eggs, in-jokes and boundless creativity.
Uh-oh: The set of Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project Megalopolis has reportedly descended into chaos and is “giving severe Apocalypse Now vibes”.
More on the streaming service that conquered the world: this New Yorker profile of Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s global head of television, is a must-read.
If you haven’t caught up on the bonkers story of Susan Meachen, the romance novelist who faked her own death, this Buzzfeed explainer has everything you need to know so far.
Another wild ride: How a group of Guns n Roses fans leaked 19 CDs of outtakes from the notorious Chinese Democracy album – with painful consequences for one of them.
Child-robot-killer-thriller M3GAN is the buzziest movie in the world right now, and it was directed by a New Zealander. The Spinoff talked to him.
We’re creating a subterranean Spinoff at the Morningside Live Block Party next month, and you’re invited.
Big news for watchers of the Netflix docuseries Vatican Girl, about the disappearance of a teenager living in the Vatican in the early ‘80s: the Pope is reopening the case.
The rise of Youtube pranksters harassing suspected scam callers in India is raising some tricky ethical questions.
This could be a rough year for the podcast industry.
There are 5,040 different ways you could watch the episodes in Netflix’s randomised heist series Kaleidoscope. This is the best order, according to Vulture.
That’s it for Rec Room for this week. If you liked what you read, why not share Rec Room with your friends and whānau.