The week in TV: The Last of Us; Maternal; The Traitors US; Break Point
The Last of Us (Sky Atlantic) | Sky/Now
Maternal (ITV1) | ITVX
The Traitors US (BBC One/BBC Three) | iPlayer
Break Point | Netflix
No disrespect to gamers but I’m only passingly interested that new Sky Atlantic drama The Last of Us originated as a revered PlayStation 3 game. Likewise in whether it has broken the bad juju of game screen adaptations. All that matters to me is whether it works as gripping television drama. Like the marauding, zombie-esque creatures that inhabit it, does it truly grab you and bite you?
Created by Craig Mazin (responsible for the matchless Chernobyl) and The Last of Us game developer Neil Druckmann, there are nine episodes of varying lengths, mainly set in a dystopian 2023, where the world has been devastated by a pandemic caused by a fungus – cordyceps – passed from ants to humans. The “infected” are transformed into crazed killer morels (scarier than it sounds). Civilisation has broken down: Earth resembles a vast junkyard; the autocratic military battle a rebel group known as the Fireflies. In the midst of the chaos, Joel, played by Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian), must travel across perilous territory chaperoning teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey from Game of Thrones), who could hold the secret to human survival.
Don’t be put off by the mushroom monsters – this is a fully realised human parable, with TLOU evolving into a brutal, passionate, post-apocalyptic western par excellence. Along with echoes of Covid, there’s an underlying eco message (cordyceps is rendered dangerous by rising temperatures). An astonishing cast includes Anna Torv (brilliant as the lead in The Newsreader last year) and Melanie Lynskey. Crucial is the relationship between fiery, backchatting Ellie and Joel, a kind of knackered Burt Reynolds whose devastating backstory unfolds in the opener. Ellie and Joel aren’t just a cheap, off-the-peg proxy father-daughter deal, they’re warm, fractious, authentic: Saul and Carrie from Homeland sieved through The Walking Dead.
It’s telling that the most riveting sequence in five episodes features Nadal’s pre-match warm-up
I’ve noticed some casting criticism, particularly regarding Ramsey not resembling the game’s Ellie enough (stay classy, gamers, it’s not supposed to be a lookalike competition). As it is, she does a brilliant job of making Ellie live and breathe. And while The Last of Us can sometimes be slow and repetitive (once you’ve seen one fungus bloodbath…), it’s worth it in the long haul. Whatever you do, don’t bail out before the third episode, featuring Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman. I can’t say too much – it’ll turn into spoiler Armageddon – but it’s an unexpected emotional fireball of love, hope and sacrifice; a capsule masterpiece within a masterpiece.
Are hospital dramas going out of vogue? Sure, we had last year’s This Is Going to Hurt, but it’s not like the old days when you couldn’t move for TV medics looking attractively anguished in white coats and stethoscopes.
The new ITV drama Maternal, from stage writer-director Jacqui Honess-Martin, has three main female characters – friends and mothers in the same NHS hospital, grappling with work and family. Maryam (Parminder Nagra) is an emotionally fragile paediatric registrar who suffers tragedy on her first day back at work. Lisa McGrillis (Somewhere Boy) is a registrar in acute medicine, with a boorish, unfaithful consultant husband. Catherine (Lara Pulver) is an ambitious surgeon who got pregnant after a fling and itches to get back on the fast track.
The opener puts these characters through a lot – overwork, sexism, childcare issues, messy home lives – arguably too much (it sometimes feels like “oh woe is modern woman” boxes are being ticked). However, snooping a couple of episodes ahead (all six are on ITVX), Maternal hits its stride. There’s a solid sense of the beleaguered, under-financed NHS. The script is sharp (“I wasn’t interested in your father’s god complex and I’m not interested in yours either”). The female friendships are resolutely unsentimental rather than heart-emoji-ing each other into a state of brain death. Tune in if you’re interested in a smart quasi-soap with a dark undertow – a medical version of The Split.
It’s easy to see why BBC gameshow The Traitors proved such a huge phenomenon. It was classic reality family viewing with addictive trimmings: a Scottish castle; betrayal (could the traitors dupe the “faithfuls” out of the prize money?); “banishments” and “murders” leading to tense breakfasts where no one so much as licked a croissant.
Moreover, while I recall the odd comic or TikTok magician (“I can read people”), it was mainly normal folk. A shame, then, that the The Traitors US, snapped up by the Beeb and now all on iPlayer, is heavily sprinkled with participants from other reality shows such as The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and The Bachelor. Otherwise, everything – the castle, the format – is exactly the same, including a massive prize pot ($250,000) and those (rather boring) tasks.
It’s still good fun – I gleefully wolfed down the 10 episodes (all on iPlayer) – and Alan Cumming makes for a mischievous host, throwing on all shades of tartan and trilling: “I’m like a less butch Agatha Christie in a fabulous outfit.” Still, I hope the next series of the UK version doesn’t cast reality television regulars engineering fake drama to attract Instagram followers. That would ruin the show’s essential magic: not only was the first series exciting, it was also curiously innocent.
New 10-part tennis series Break Point comes from the makers of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, the magnificent docuseries (also Netflix) dealing with the life-and-death drama of F1. It not only featured drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen (the latter rumoured to be returning for the next series), but F1 managers, including “team principals” Christian Horner (Red Bull) and Toto Wolff (Mercedes-AMG Petronas) – eternally feuding like the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the international pitstop circuit.
I’m such a DTS-fan, I couldn’t wait for the first half-series drop of Break Point, but it’s a struggle. The premise (that less well-known players are coming through after the dominance of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams) is fine, and it’s great that it looks at women such as Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, pundits including Chris Evert and Andy Roddick, and mental health issues. However, tennis (so grimly insular) feels like an uneasy fit. The opener features “bad boy” racket-smasher Nick Kyrgios, but even he’s a bit underpowered here.
It’s telling that the most riveting sequence in five episodes features Nadal’s pre-match warm-up, involving some brazenly alpha (read: intimidating) bouncing about. I haven’t lost hope (yet) but I’m not sure Break Point is serving aces.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Last Of Us ★★★★★
The Traitors US ★★★
Break Point ★★
What else I’m watching
The winter Love Island. Maya Jama is the new host in an extremely windy South Africa, with contestants shivering forlornly in scanty beachwear (get the poor souls some jumpers!). It’s a tad dull thus far, but it always is at the start.
India: The Modi Question
As India’s prime minister, the controversial Narendra Modi leads the world’s largest democracy, This two-part docuseries examines allegations, including questions about his attitude towards the Muslim population.
The northeast crime drama starring Brenda Blethyn as Ann Cleeves’s Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope returns for its 12th series. Vera is the female Columbo: often dishevelled and underestimated, but in truth sharp and formidable.