To call "The Last of Us," the nine-part pow of a series on HBO Max, the best screen adaptation of a video game ever is to damn it with faint praise. Video games mostly suck as movies and TV shows. For every "Werewolves Within" there's a "Bloodrayne" or "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
The good news is that "The Last of Us" breaks the jinx by kicking off the 2023 TV season with an event phenom that equals the breakthrough 2013 game that spawned it. It helps that game co-creator Neil Druckmann has joined forces with showrunner Craig Mazin, who won a well-deserved Emmy for writing and directing the HBO nuclear disaster series "Chernobyl."
In "The Last of Us" the disaster rises from the appearance of a fungus that leaves America in ruins and most of its infected citizens running around like zombies, chomping down on whatever moves. The trigger-happy military, known as FEDRA, handles population control.
OK, the plot sounds achingly familiar, from "The Walking Dead" to "A Quiet Place" and "Station Eleven." But it's the execution that counts. And "The Last of Us" is impressively executed by stellar actors who know that making an emotional connection with characters trumps gore every time. Don't worry if you're not a gamer, this show will hit you hard.
All hail Pedro Pascal -- the Mandalorian himself -- who removes the helmet to play Joel, a rebel who's hired by the Fireflies, a resistance group run by Marlene (a terrific Merle Dandridge who voiced her in the game). His task? Smuggle Ellie (Bella Ramsey), a 14-year-old girl with a sassy mouth on her, outside the quarantine zone to a secret destination.
No spoilers, but this much I can say. Ellie has a bite on her arm that usually spells curtains for the bitten. But Ellie isn't dying or even sick. Does that mean her DNA could be a cure for mankind? Naturally, everyone wants a piece of her.
As for Joel, we meet him pre-plague in 2003 as a Texas contractor working with his brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna). He is also a single dad raising a teen daughter (Nico Parker) on his own. Then Joel suffers a traumatic loss you don't bounce back from.
Zip ahead 20 years and a hardened Joel is now in Boston working with Tess (Anna Torv), a former lover who joins him on the Ellie mission impossible, sparking action sequences that create almost unbearable suspense and tension -- with no sacrifice to the human drama.
You probably know Ramsey, 19, from Lena Dunham's sublimely funny "Catherine Called Birdy" or from "Game of Thrones," in which she and costar Pascal both met gruesome deaths. But if there's such a thing as acting chemistry, Pascal and Ramsey have it, building a rooting interest in Joel and Ellie that ensures this often horrific series earns a place in our hearts.
Terrific as they are, Pascal and Ramsey are not the whole show. Over nine hours, the series takes side trips that enable the filmmakers to depart from the game and deepen the world building. The outstanding third episode focuses on a gay love story between two survivors, played magnificently by Nick Offerman and "White Lotus" standout Murray Bartlett.
In episode 4, Melanie Lynskey ("Yellowjackets") makes a vivid impression as a rebel leader whose feelings have atrophied from the onslaught of violent inhumanity that's infected everyday life.
Near the end, we also learn exactly who Ellie is. There's a possibility that HBO might renew the series for more seasons. I'm down with that and my guess is you will be too.
"The Last of Us" is is a triumph of ferocity and feeling that grabs you and won't let go. More please, and soon.