Nico Parker and Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us.

I don’t play video games, and I knew nothing about The Last of Us heading into the new weekly series from HBO. From the previews, it looked like yet another zombie-apocalypse story, in the tradition of Resident Evil or The Walking Dead.

With its nearly 90-minute premiere on Jan. 15, this one is off to a very good start, thanks to strong, atmospheric direction from director Craig Mazin and great performances from Pedro Pascal, Bella Ramsey and Nico Parker.

It all kicks off with a nice homage to George Romero, set in 1968. Some doctors on a TV talk show discuss pandemics, including the notion of a fungal (rather than viral) outbreak in humans, and whether we are prepared for such a thing. Cut to 2003, when we find out we definitely are not prepared.

The world is thrust into a very dark place, where zombified people seek to spread their fungi to others, and the world has wound up under a dangerous dictatorship.

Pascal plays Joel, a mild-mannered widower and construction worker living a humdrum existence with his daughter, Sarah (Parker), and brother, Tommy (Gabriel Luna). While out shopping for her dad’s birthday, Sarah notices that police and fire department activity has picked up. It won’t be long before she and her dad have their lives uprooted as their neighbors become infected.

This is a survival story done well, with an outlandish plot told credibly. You can have zero familiarity with the video game upon which it’s based and still be taken in by the setup. HBO looks to have another hit on their hands after last year’s House of the Dragon. Let’s hope it remains consistent. (Dragon dragged at times.)

Pascal is going to have a huge 2023, with this and the soon-to-arrive third season of The Mandalorian. He’s become one of the more reliable actors on the planet.

New episodes of The Last of Us air Sundays on HBO, and are streaming on HBO Max.

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