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How 'The Last Of Us' makes an old plot line feel fresh

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Dystopia is all around us.

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

PEDRO PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) We don't know.

GABRIEL LUNA: (As Tommy Miller) They're saying it's a virus, some kind of parasite.

SUMMERS: Well, on our screens at least. You know the plotline - survivors of an earth-shattering catastrophe roam empty cities in search of food or shelter.

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

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where's the rest of us?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're the only ones who made it so far.

SUMMERS: Or they hatch plans to save the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I AM LEGEND")

WILL SMITH: (As Robert Neville) Look. I can save you. I can save - I can help you. You are sick, and I can help you.

SUMMERS: There's probably a zombie nearby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "28 DAYS LATER")

NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Selena) Were you bitten? Did any of the blood get in your mouth?

SUMMERS: It begs the question, what new is there to say? It's a question that faced the creators of "The Last Of Us," the wildly popular new HBO show that ticks every single one of the boxes I just mentioned. And it's also a question that NPR's Glen Weldon and Eric Deggans have been pondering. What makes this dystopian plotline shine? And they are with me now for this week's installment of The Take. Hi, guys.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey there.

SUMMERS: All right, before we get go, and just to catch people up on the plot here - no spoilers, please. It is 20 years after a fungus has spread through the population, turning people into zombies. And there's a girl who might hold the key to immunity. And she needs to take a journey. There's a grizzled man who begrudgingly agrees to protect her along the way.

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

MERLE DANDRIDGE: (As Marlene) We were going to move Ellie out of the zone tonight. But we won't make it anywhere like this, not for a while, anyway. So now I'm thinking. You're going to do it.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) The hell we are.

BELLA RAMSEY: (As Ellie Williams) I'm not going with them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Let me take her.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) Tess, we don't have time for this.

DANDRIDGE: (As Marlene) Oh, you don't have time.

ANNA TORV: (As Tess) Who is she?

DANDRIDGE: (As Marlene) To you, she's cargo.

PASCAL: (As Joel Miller) We don't smuggle people.

SUMMERS: Pretty straightforward, I've got to say. So what makes this different?

DEGGANS: Well, what I love about "The Last Of Us" is that it seems to have learned from all the other zombie movies and TV shows that we've had, particularly "The Walking Dead." So one of the things that it does that I think "The Walking Dead" also does is that the zombies are almost like a natural disaster. They don't focus on the zombies quite that much. They tell you what you need to know about how this fungus works and why the zombies are the way they are. But once the story gets going, it's much more about the people. And that is a really important, I think, element.

WELDON: Yeah. And, Juana, you can tell when a show is creating these cardboard characters just to feed them into a sausage grinder - right? - to be killed or killed by the zombies or mutants or vampires or whatever. And this show, as Eric says, it's really about the human relationships and the communities they're hanging on despite all that. I said when I reviewed the show for NPR that this show is about the zombies in the same way that "The Sopranos" was about RICO charges, right? Which is to say they're real. They're a threat. They're looming over everything. But the show is really about what the characters do despite them.

SUMMERS: And one of the things that I really found fascinating about the show when I started watching it is the fact that we're now watching this after we've all had this collective experience of the pandemic and where a virus, not unlike on the show, has unexpectedly changed life as we know it. And I was wondering how it was going to hit for me, given the fact that I think a lot of us have a lot of fatigue around that, especially in our entertainment. So for both of you, I wonder, do you think the timing matters here, or do you think that the fact that we've gone through this collective experience is part of what makes the show so impactful?

WELDON: Well, what's changed is how we approach them, right? Because once upon a time, these shows were science fiction, right? They were horror. They worked purely on a metaphorical level. And we can have all these cozy intellectual debates. Well, I think the zombies represent communism. And I think the zombies represent fascism. But now these shows are not escapist, they're not theoretical. We can't have the same kind of cool emotional distance we did, which is why I think people are turning to shows like this, which are about human connections. This show was one, "Station Eleven" last year was another one. There was a show "Sweet Tooth" which ditched the grim and gritty nihilism, because that no longer feels fun or novel or interesting - because why pay a streaming service for grim and gritty when you can look out your dang window - in favor of something more humane, more generous, more hopeful, really.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, what I think is interesting about this moment, "The Last Of Us," the TV show, is based on a video game that was created in like 2013 or something, so well before our current pandemic. And there was an element of that game where the fungus was passed along through spores, which would make it a lot more like what we're going through with coronavirus. And they didn't transfer that to the TV show, which I thought was really interesting.

The other thing that strikes me about this - and it's kind of an aside, but, you know, at the end of most virus or zombie TV shows or movies, they find the cure. And that's the end because it's assumed that people take the cure when it is developed. And what we found out in real life is that you can come up with a cure and people still might not take it. So what is interesting to me about "The Last Of Us" - and I don't want to give away any spoilers - but there is an ambivalence about finding the cure when you get to the end of this story that reflects, I think, a little bit about where we are right now.

SUMMERS: We cannot have a conversation about this show without getting into this week's episode, which I have to confess I have not had a chance to watch yet, so I'm going to ask you not to spoil it for me.

WELDON: Oh, man.

SUMMERS: But from what I have heard and my understanding of this episode, it stands out for a number of the reasons we are talking about here in terms of finding glimmers of humanity. Explain what was so powerful about this week's episode for me.

DEGGANS: Well, this is the kind of love story that we don't often see depicted the way that it's depicted in this episode. We are meeting two people who fall in love in the middle of an apocalypse. And that love is special and unique. And we get the full arc of their love story in one episode. And it connects very importantly to the story of Joel and Ellie, the story that runs all the way through the series. So it's just this potent bit of storytelling that is really, really impactful.

WELDON: Yeah. And if you're just following the social media reaction - and it hit people deeply. I knew this episode was coming. I sat there and watched my social media explode. And to some people, this is - it's a deep, heart-wrenching love story. To some people, it's hackneyed and cliched. I think it's neither. I think you see that it starts at a really interesting place where one of these characters is clearly playing the other characters, trying to take advantage of them. It might grow into something real, but it starts from a much more interesting place than a lot of the kind of online reaction has suggested.

SUMMERS: You know, I saw this episode described elsewhere as a bottle episode, an episode that stands apart in a self-contained setting that's a departure from the expected narrative. And I'm curious for either of you, is this another way in which "The Last Of Us" kind of distinguishes itself from others of the genre by the types of narrative devices it chooses to use?

WELDON: Well, Juana, I can tell you have not been swimming in the same backwaters of online TV criticism that I have because TV critics can just get snippy about terminology. And technically, this isn't a bottle episode because it doesn't take the main characters and trap them in a place and have them go at each other. It's a standalone. It really gives us a breather. It shows us how very different people are dealing with this same situation. And it really builds out the world of the show by grounding it in something familiar to us, like long-term relationships. Relationships are tough even in this world where no one is turning into a portabella mushroom at any given opportunity. In this world, where that's happening, the fact that they can survive and thrive is even more hopeful.

DEGGANS: And that's another way that the series feels fresh. Then the very next episode, they use that perspective-changing device really, really smartly. So this is something we're going to see again and again sort of pop up as the series goes through its episodes.

SUMMERS: All right. Well, we'll just have to keep comparing notes. That was Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic, and Glen Weldon, co-host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks to you both.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.