‘Fallout’ makes post-apocalyptic TV great again

“Fallout” layers sharp pulp writing with the nostalgic politics of what “made America great.” There is no post-apocalypse story quite like this in video games, and now television.

“Fallout,” an adaptation of the hit game series released Wednesday on Prime Video, echoes many end-of-the-world stories, including HBO’s “Westworld,” another creation from executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. The most striking aspect of “Fallout” is the way it depicts an America ravaged by nuclear weapons, in arrested development, obsessed with the culture and norms of the 1950s. (Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, owner of Prime Video.)

The Fallout game series was always ripe for adaptation, but not because of a specific narrative. On the contrary, the world-building, carried out by a team of game designers led by Tim Cain in 1997, rivals that of George Lucas or JRR Tolkien. Wrapping it in the aesthetic of 20th century art deco and Coca-Cola makes it all the more approachable and relatable. In “Fallout,” the world’s three nuclear powers are killing each other. A special class of people (later called Vault Dwellers) were able to hide in individually numbered fallout shelters. Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) is our Vault 33 protagonist.

The series wisely understood that the most distinctive and interesting human story in this world is that of the Vault Dwellers. In “Fallout,” each vault has its own purpose. (A famous example from the games, Vault 11, revolved around a twisted democratic experiment in which citizens had to vote each year on who to sacrifice.) The binge-worthy mystery box question for the series: what is the purpose of Vault 33? The series traces the journey of two of its inhabitants: Lucy, who leaves the vault after an invasion by mysterious strangers, and her brother Norm (Moisés Arias), who stays alongside the survivors in their quest for understanding.

This is the rare video game adaptation that welcomes and embraces the quiet moments. Large portions of the series resemble the wordless intro montages of Pixar’s “WALL-E” and “Up.” The game-faithful soundtrack filled with early 20th century pop (Bing Crosby, the Ink Spots) adds to that modern silent film vibe, where cinematography and sound are their own pleasures.

Purnell (“Yellowjackets”) shares the top spot with Aaron Moten as Maximus, a soldier training with an isolationist group of supersoldiers called the Brotherhood of Steel. Post-war madness is on full display as Maximus confronts peer pressure and bigotry to survive and maintain a sense of manhood. Video game military machismo is tested and ridiculed in slapstick and hilarious violence involving power armor and mutated wild animals. Moten turns in a convincing performance as the extremely clueless but intelligent survivor, and his story contains the biggest surprises.

Less surprising is our third main character, the Ghoul, played by Walton Goggins, his granite face sculpted and mutated into a snarling zombie cowboy in a black hat. It’s a charismatic, scene-stealing performance, but his character relies too heavily on the “Man in Black” tropes that Nolan and Joy explored in depth in “Westworld.” It’s far from boring, but the evil spirit of a cowboy isn’t as scary when it’s predictable. Fortunately, his backstory (told through numerous flashbacks throughout the season) contains some heartfelt humanity.

The best part about the world of the Fallout games, and now this series, is that it’s one of the most relatable sci-fi wastelands. Unlike other geek properties, it’s not about superheroes or Super Mario. The series is about the human experience as a literal science project. With “Fallout,” we still may not like the end result, because high-profile Nolan projects tend to fail when they run for a long time. But also typically Nolan, this is a winning and unmissable first season.

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