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'The Last of Us' creates a dystopian landscape that feels human — and hopeful

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Last Of Us" is a current HBO series based on a hit video game of the same title. It stars Pedro Pascal as a grizzled smuggler who's transporting a teenage girl played by Bella Ramsey, across a pandemic-ravaged America. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, enjoyed the first two episodes, but says it really kicks into gear with the third episode this coming Sunday. Here's John.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: I'm not exactly sure what started it, 9/11, maybe, or perhaps the 2008 financial crisis. But our culture has grown increasingly drawn to notions of apocalypse. From our politics to our pop entertainment, we're flooded by visions of social collapse, the rapid disintegration of a civilization that may have been unjust but at least felt stable and reasonably safe.

The world falls apart yet again in "The Last Of Us," the new HBO series that has led countless TV reviewers to yell - guess what? - there's finally a good video game adaptation. In truth, the series initially felt a bit old hat. You had your usual post-apocalyptic landscape. You had another legion of the walking dead who required killing. But as it moves into Week 3 this Sunday, you begin to admire how the show's creator, Craig Mazin, who previously did "Chernobyl," has found a way of transforming a satisfying game into a satisfying drama.

The action starts in 2003, when a fungal epidemic wipes out the world as we know it, shattering the life of our hero, Joel, a Texas construction worker played by Pedro Pascal. Twenty years later, the tough, gruff Joel is a smuggler in a bombed-out Boston filled with partisan groups battling oppressive government forces known as FEDRA. Along with his partner in crime, Tess - that's an excellent Anna Torv - Joel wants to go west to Wyoming to find his brother. A rebel group called the Fireflies - the government says they're terrorists - asks Joel to take along Ellie, a smart-mouthed 14-year-old played by Bella Ramsey. And so they set off across a despoiled, post-Cormac McCarthy landscape of dead bodies, gutted cars, abandoned buildings and mushroom-headed zombies, who are actually less dangerous than the rebel groups and marauders who prowl the countryside.

As Joel and Ellie slowly bond, the show introduces us to side characters whose lives suggest different ways of dealing with apocalypse. These include a lonely survivalist, played by an off-brand Nick Offerman, a vengeful militia leader, played by Melanie Lynskey, and a creepy preacher. That's the great theater actor Scott Shepherd. Needless to say, Ellie is something more than just a saucy teen. Here, early on, she's talking with the Fireflies' leader, Marlene, and asks why the rebels had placed her and her friend, Riley, in a camp run by FEDRA.

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

BELLA RAMSEY: (As Ellie) Why would terrorists dump me with FEDRA?

MERLE DANDRIDGE: (As Marlene) Because it's where you'd be safest. And you were safe there until you decided to sneak out. Terrorist? Was Riley a terrorist?

RAMSEY: (As Ellie) Why won't you let me go?

DANDRIDGE: (As Marlene) Because you have a greater purpose than any of us could have ever imagined. So we're leaving tonight. And we're taking you with us.

POWERS: Now, one day, some brainy soul is going to write a book chronicling how video games have changed the look of movies and TV. We've grown used to all those long takes of characters wandering through immersive landscapes. In "The Last Of Us," Joel and Ellie are forever moving and fighting through deftly production-designed scenes of ruin and decay that come straight from the game. This is a great-looking series. What makes it groundbreaking is that it's a series filled with feeling. For all their evocative worlds and attempts at empathy, most video games are still built around a procession of suspenseful sequences that require the player to do something, often something violent, creating tension in order to release it.

Games are about adrenaline, but good drama is about emotion. What carries "The Last Of Us" is not the spectacular design or bursts of action, which are far fewer than in the game. It's the spark between Joel and Tess, or Ellie's dawning awareness of the vulnerable decency beneath Joel's hardened demeanor. The series hits its peak when it sets aside the official let's-get-to-Wyoming plot and takes us inside the secondary characters. In this Sunday's upcoming episode, for instance, we get a long, touching sequence about the relationship between Offerman's Don't Tread on Me survivalist and a charming trespasser played by Murray Bartlett of "White Lotus" fame.

Mazin understands that in our age of countless dystopian stories, the audience doesn't want unremitting bleakness. It wants to feel a bond with the characters. It's one thing for our digital avatar to shoot down some equally digital enemy in a game. Heck, the victim never seems human. It's another thing for Joel, played by an actor we like, to kill somebody who's as human as he is. Mazin pointedly makes sure that we don't find such killing morally weightless, let alone fun. He makes the deaths register on Joel and us. And it's this recognition of humanity that offers a glimmer of hope. The world can be dark and ruthless, "The Last Of Us" suggests, but that doesn't mean we have to be.

DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the TV series "The Last Of Us" on HBO. On Monday's show, what Happens when a doctor becomes the patient? Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh describes how his own cancer diagnosis led him to reflect on the doctor-patient relationship, his own mortality and medically assisted death. He'll talk about his memoir, called "And Finally," and about his trips to Ukraine, performing surgery and working to improve the country's medical system. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "JUST LIKE RIVER FLOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.