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Review: 'Last of Us' takes a familiar story to exciting new places

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A popular video game about surviving an apocalypse has been adapted into HBO's newest adventure series, "The Last Of Us." It premiered last night, and NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show finds a way to take a familiar story to exciting new places.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It is tempting to dismiss HBO's "The Last Of Us" as yet another in a long line of post-apocalyptic zombie adventure stories, like a mash-up of "The Walking Dead" and "The Road," especially when you hear the central premise. Pedro Pascal plays Joel, a construction contractor turned hardened survivor, when a zombie apocalypse shatters the world. He winds up escorting Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, across the country in an effort to help find a cure. Their early interactions are a little frosty as the rebellious teen Ellie is forced to work with world-weary Joel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

BELLA RAMSEY: (As Ellie) If you don't think there's hope for the world, why bother going on?

PEDRO PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) You haven't seen the world, so you don't know. You keep going for family.

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) I'm not family.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) No. You're cargo.

DEGGANS: Now, anyone who's seen any zombie movies knows Joel's attitude about Ellie is bound to change before long. But even though this setting and situation feels familiar, the show's producers - including Craig Mazin, creator of HBO's hit miniseries "Chernobyl" - find fresh material. The zombies aren't created by a virus or pathogen but by a fungus. A doctor on a talk show explains how it might work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

JOHN HANNAH: (As Dr. Neuman) There's a fungus that infects insects - gets inside an ant, for example, travels through its circulatory system to the ant's brain and then floods it with hallucinogens, thus bending the ant's mind to its will. The fungus starts to direct the ant's behavior, telling it where to go and what to do like a puppeteer with a marionette. And it gets worse. The fungus needs food to live, so it begins to devour its host from within.

DEGGANS: Yeah, kind of icky. Normally, we learn, such fungi cannot survive in a human because our bodies are too hot. But if global warming prompts an evolution...

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOATER GROWLING)

DEGGANS: ...Suddenly you have people animated by plants seeking to turn the world into a giant fungus colony. But the real secret sauce of "The Last Of Us" is its storytelling style. We meet characters in situations who seem unconnected only to find the evolving story turns to bring them into Joel and Ellie's journey. In particular, "The White Lotus" alum Murray Bartlett and "Parks And Rec" star Nick Offerman have a delicate story that emerges in the midst of the apocalypse. It's touching, heartwarming and super sad all at once.

It's the best adaptation of a video game I have seen yet. Part of the reason is 19-year-old English actress Bella Ramsey, best known as Lady Mormont on "Game Of Thrones," who gives a star-making performance as Ellie. When she hits a particular rough patch with Joel that brings tragedy, Ellie reminds him that he chose to go on this journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) Look; I've been thinking about...

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) I don't want your sorrys.

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) I wasn't going to say I'm sorry. I was going to say that I've been thinking about what happened. Nobody made you or Tess take me. Nobody made you go along with this plan. You needed a truck battery or whatever, and you made a choice. So don't blame me for something that isn't my fault.

DEGGANS: I can't say much more without dropping serious spoilers, but I can say "The Last Of Us" excels by focusing on the human connections between its characters and the terrible choices they're forced to make as they fight for humanity at the end of the world.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.