Watching The Final of Us, HBO’s mega-expensive adaptation of the acclaimed hit online game, you get a close-up view of 1 factor consuming and piloting the consciousness of one other. In a literal sense, there’s the gore of the Cordyceps fungus turning people into unthinking drones (“They’re not zombies,” I hear you sniff, however they’re mainly zombies). However there’s additionally an aesthetic consumption happening. The present’s creators, Neil Druckmann (of the sport) and Craig Mazin (of the cheery Chernobyl), are metabolizing a narrative constructed for one medium, gameplay, into one other, status tv. The result’s tony, well-acted, rigorously shot, and even effectively reviewed, however the expertise of watching it’s empty. Nowhere is that extra obvious than within the present’s third episode, a standalone extrapolation from an implied arc within the recreation that tries so exhausting to mimic what we consider as status tv that it forgets to say something in any respect. Name it zombified TV.
The episode, “Lengthy Lengthy Time,” follows Nick Offerman’s Invoice, a gruff however meticulous survivalist who’s managed to make it by way of the Cordyceps plague by booby-trapping his dwelling within the wilds someplace outdoors of Boston. In the future, he unintentionally captures Frank (Murray Bartlett), a candy, hunky man making an attempt to make it on his personal. Relying in your tolerance for sentiment, their ensuing romance is both candy or extremely apparent: They’ve a beautiful dinner, Frank attracts Invoice out of his shell by complimenting his alternative of rabbit paired with Beaujolais, they flirt over a piano, they’ve intercourse and develop previous collectively in a form of cottagecore postapocalyptic bear fantasy. By the tip of the episode, Bartlett and Offerman are in old-age make-up, and an sick Frank has determined to die, having lived the very best life in a world now run by fungus. Invoice prepares a meal for him with poison served within the wine (pairs effectively with Beaujolais!), and the scene closes with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” a chunk of music deployed to sign large emotional catharsis in every part from Arrival (the place it price the film Oscar consideration) to Fort Rock and The Handmaid’s Story. Later, after the principle characters Joel and Ellie uncover Invoice’s goodbye notice, there’s a needle drop of the tune they bonded over on the piano, Linda Ronstadt’s “Lengthy Lengthy Time,” that’s — shock — cued for dramatic, emotional weight.
Like that use of Max Richter, nothing in “Lengthy Lengthy Time” is modern. Tv, particularly if it’s style, is keen on pairing off characters to develop previous in some story line, typically shunting them off to a cabin within the woods or a timeline separate from the principle motion. I’m keen on The Magicians’s “A Life in a Day,” the place two male characters fall in love whereas caught in a magical puzzle, and of Different House (a Yahoo! Unique that nobody watched however I liked) sending up the “rising previous on one other planet” trope by having two characters bicker relentlessly as they age.
Within the present TV atmosphere, writing a standalone love story has additionally grow to be a shortcut to seriousness, as within the case of Mythic Quest. “Darkish Quiet Loss of life” break up from the office comedy’s typical construction to spend time with Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti’s earlier technology of video-game designers falling out and in of affection. With its divergence from the collection’ lighter comedy inventory and commerce, “Darkish Quiet Loss of life” fell dangerously near a unadorned plea for crucial consideration, nevertheless it was elevated by Johnson and Militoti’s simple chemistry and a roundabout method of getting at among the present’s bigger questions — notably, learn how to make genuine artwork in video video games (hey, wait, that’s this present too!). The Final of Us feels extra clearly influenced by the work of Damon Lindelof, like Juliet and Sawyer thrown again in time in season 5 of Misplaced and discovering a life within the Dharma Initiative, or Kevin and Nora sitting collectively on the finish of The Leftovers in equally awkward old-age make-up and garb from the L.L. Bean postapocalypse assortment. These are style ideas incessantly deployed to look at the eccentricities of human connection in probably the most excessive of circumstances; these examples even have a notably surreal wit and surprise to them, which helps the sadder elements of the story land.
The Final of Us, in distinction, asks those self same questions cheaply. “Lengthy Lengthy Time” positions Invoice and Frank’s story as an alternate, happier imaginative and prescient of life among the many mushrooms than the final distress of Joel and Ellie’s journey, however the plot is rote and the writing apparent. The present makes quite a lot of metaphorical hay of the notion that Frank goes to get Invoice to open up by the use of getting him to develop strawberries; as quickly because the episode depicted them bickering over Frank buying and selling for seeds, I let loose a groan anticipating the second the place stated strawberries could be dramatically shared as an emblem of emotional and precise development. (That’s Pixar-style manipulation, a darkish hybrid of Up and Wall-E.) The episode has the chance to subvert expectations someplace alongside its hour and fifteen minute runtime however appears tired of offering something sudden, and Bartlett and Offerman appear at sea as actors, repeatedly hitting the identical character beats, whether or not gruff and paranoid or angsty and flighty. They’re caught in wood roles appearing out maudlin dynamics.
The bigger problem for The Final of Us, nonetheless, is that it’s bringing this type of apparent and nostalgic storytelling to a style that’s been totally labored over. We’ve seen loads of postapocalyptic movies and films and video games make the identical factors, from Youngsters of Males (launched in 2006, so The Final of Us characters, with their 2003 collapse, by no means need to acknowledge that they’re doing the identical factor) by way of The Strolling Lifeless, I Am Legend, The Street, et cetera. Station Eleven, simply final 12 months on HBOMax, took the premise of a pandemic and used it to unspool a collection of existential meditations about how artwork survives and why. The Final of Us doesn’t really feel as if it’s including to the dialog as a lot as regurgitating what has already been chewed by way of.
“Lengthy Lengthy Time” is the season’s single major deviation from the story line of the online game itself, as Druckmann and Mazin famous in an intensive New Yorker piece that frets concerning the problem of creating a recreation story line into status TV. Their answer to fears of alienating diehard avid gamers, it appears, was take one large episodic swing that mimics “severe status tv” and keep on with 1:1 re-creations of the occasions of the sport in every single place else.
It’s missed alternative on each counts. On the standalone facet, why so saccharine? Why not have extra enjoyable with this type of deviation from the plot? So far as re-creating the beats of the sport, why not comply with a extra attention-grabbing path? Probably the most participating elements within the storytelling of The Final of Us is that, as a result of Joel dictates how you progress ahead within the recreation, you’re implicated in his more and more grey decision-making. On TV, the viewer is primed to be sympathetic towards a primary character, so there’s not the identical degree of friction as skilled by the gamer. Story traces that really feel alive as an energetic participant within the recreation as an alternative really feel hackneyed on tv. Watching The Final of Us, I needed to choose it up and shake it free from its preconceptions about what it has to do with a view to be trustworthy to its supply materials and what it desires to do with a view to be taken severely as tv. As a collection, it says nothing new in both case.