The Last Of Us – The Jury’s Half Out

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They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. Having worked my way through pretty much the entire amphibian world on three continents and sucked the life out of every toad imaginable, I’m still no closer to finding anyone I’d want to spend my last croak with.

So, I eagerly awaited the much-publicized kiss at the end of episode two of The Last Of Us, HBO’s TV adaptation of the 2013 action adventure video game. A zombie – or, more accurately, a thing resembling a Ben and Jerry’s Rain-dough Cookie Dough Twist – leaned in for a smacker with a woman called Tess (Anna Torv) who, until this point, had seemed as if she was going to be the heroine of the story.

With what seemed like worms on acid slithering out if its mouth, Rain Dough Man – or Woman? Who knows – the gingery feelers locked lips with Tess, who didn’t seem averse to the operation. If this was supposed to be a moment of horror, it failed miserably. The most reaction I could summon up was ‘No tongues, please!’ It was just comically absurd. To be honest, I’ve had boyfriends who are far worse kissers.

Tess was already on her way out, having been infected by a Ben and Jerry killer zombie long before the kiss. We knew this because she revealed a whacking great monstrosity expanding on her neck (or a love bite from a particularly carnivorous zombie?) – Ophiocordyceps, known in reality as a fungus possessing the ability to exercise ‘mind control’ on insect hosts, but something to which humans are immune. Allegedly.

In any case, she’s dead now, having blown up the building that she and the zombies were in as a grand act of sacrifice.

I confess to knowing next to nothing about Ophiocordyceps and even less about the world of video games and the kind of people who play them. My only contact with them is through TV dramas in which youngsters – as it is mostly them – sit on the edge of a sofa, ignoring their parents’ calls to have dinner/do their homework/tidy their bedroom, or whatever else it is young people are supposed to do when they’re not using their thumbs to navigate stories on a screen.

But what are these participants watching and engaging with so intently, other than something that turns them into monosyllabic (yells and grunts, mostly) zombies – presumably of the kind their thumbs are trying to virtually assassinate?

Those familiar with the award-winning The Last Of Us are enthusiastic about the adaptation, analyzing how closely the narrative has stuck to the original – or not, how the new audience engages with the characters, the scare/horror factors, and so much else besides. There is clearly already a dedicated – obsessive, even (or barking mad, depending on your viewpoint) – audience, who will doubtless remain as committed to the TV version.

For me, as a nonaficionado of the video genre, there is just one question: does it work as TV, full stop?

Undoubtedly, yes – if what you’re into is dire production values, hilariously unrealistic sets, incomprehensible and mumbling characters with whom it’s impossible to feel any engagement, laughable zombies who are about as scary as the Muppets’ Rowlf the Dog, dialogue that often sounds as if it’s written by a two-year-old, and scripts so boring they make Yellowstone look like Django Unchained.

Until episode three, that is – which is so exquisitely tender, beautiful and understated, it’s hard to believe it came out of the same brains. Maybe it’s because it’s the first episode that goes seriously off piste from the video game. But more of that later. First, you have to kiss a lot of zombies before you find that princely masterpiece.

So, we’re in a post-apocalyptic America, where a killer virus is wiping everyone out in droves, but for some inexplicable reason has decided to save Joel (Pedro Pascal), the world’s most boring, inarticulate man, and Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the world’s most irritating, inarticulate and tedious teenager.

Well, who knows whether she’s interesting or not, because everything she says is incomprehensible other than ‘F**k!’ and ‘Holy s**t!’ Skulls, corpses, weird women who chain her up (part of the Fireflies, a resistance movement – who cares), the Ben and Jerry cornets parading their sprinkles all around her – there’s a lot that warrants her swearing about, to be fair.

No one knows what to do about the fungus, so the authorities wheel in Dr Ratna (Christine Hakim), an Indonesian mycology professor, who alas isn’t much use at all. All she knows is what she’s seen – ‘a normal woman, then suddenly violent’. Er, isn’t that just a definition of a woman?

She thinks there’s only one answer – ‘Bomb…the city and everyone in it.’ Steady on, love. Ok, so the condition is immune to vaccines, but it’s a big jump from ‘Let’s sleep on this for a couple of nights’ ‘Annihilate the planet.’ Maybe talk to God and the angels for a bit before making that all important decision?

Clearly, no one takes her advice because, before you know it, the Ben and Jerry brigade have taken over the Bostonian Museum – a fictional establishment inspired by several actual museums in the city. In a shoot-out, a lot of the zombies are killed, although they at first seem rather immune to Joel’s guns. You can’t help feeling that if the stupid man just turned his torch off, the zombies would have a little more trouble locating him under the display cabinets.

As with the sets throughout, there is zero scary about it. Every fern and frond both inside and out looks less like decayed flora and fauna and more like Ozzy Osbourne after a bad day at the hair stylist. A child could construct better with a couple of twigs and a box of Fuzzy Felt.

If you can survive the tedium of episodes one and two – or just fast forward on your remote – episode three is a joy. Bookended by Joel and Ellie’s mumbling, it’s a wonderful story of two older guys who, in a world in which love – along with pretty much everything else – has been annihilated, find each other.

It doesn’t start out optimistically, with ‘survivalist’ Bill (Nick Offerman), happily isolated and alone, finding a man called Frank (Murray Bartlett) in a hole in his garden. Whadderyerknow, they’re both gay . . .  Of all the gay watering holes in all the world, you had to walk into mine! One guy – one spare guy – left in the whole goddamn world, and he’s gay. That will be my life at Armageddon.

They quickly share a bottle of wine – but it’s Beaujolais! Bloody red vinegar, when they have access to everything in the deserted wine shop down the road. You’d think post-Acopalypse Bill would at least have had the sense to pick up a crate of Barolo en route to his robbing Home Depot.

After sharing a meal and their mutual love of music, the pair are in bed, where it is Frank’s job to instruct Bill in the art of manly love. There’s nothing salacious, awkward or strange about it, and their life becomes one of tenderness, companionship, comfort and pure love – the real hope in a seemingly hopeless universe. Frank’s ‘last day’ – not a real spoiler – is as beautiful a piece of television as you will ever see, with sublime performances from Offerman and Bartlett and a gentleness of touch in the direction that is painfully lacking in episodes one and two.

Maybe for the rest of the run, I’ll just tune in to the episodes that bear no relation to the video game ­– episodes that have plot, character, substance and depth. Because if there’s one thing I think I now know about video games, it’s that they’re little more than eye candy for the bored.