Sunday 21 April 2024

Fallout: Season 1

2296. Two hundred and nineteen years have passed since the world was devastated in the Great War. Tens of thousands of people in the United States survived in vaults, vast underground complexes dedicated to human survival. When Vault 33, under Santa Monica, Los Angeles, is raided by surface dwellers and its Overseer captured, it falls to his daughter Lucy to set out in search of him. She finds her search complicated by an overlapping quest to find a technological gizmo that could save the wasteland, with multiple other factions searching for the same device, including the Brotherhood of Steel and a ghoul bounty-hunter. Lucy has to overcome her initial naivete about the world to accomplish her mission.

Fallout is a video game franchise which has worn a lot of hats over its twenty-seven years in existence. It's been a dark comedy, a horror fable, a tale of political intrigue, a survival story and an action piece. Each one of the nine games to bear the Fallout banner has been notably different from the others, with different emphases on things like comedy, character or worldbuilding. This has made Fallout almost uniquely contentious as a franchise: every game in the series is somebody's favourite (okay, maybe not 2004's terrible action game Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel) or somebody's most reviled. Each game has a different tone and style, and as each game is somebody's first Fallout experience, they go away thinking of that as being "real Fallout" and anything that deviates from that is a mistake.

When you're making a Fallout TV show, that gives the production team a headache. How can you thread the needle between sometimes wildly different source material, with an infamously contentious fanbase, which also appeals to the general audience? It turns out, pretty well.

Fallout: The Show on Television takes advantage of its format to have an ensemble cast. We mostly focus on Lucy (Ella Purnell) as she leaves Vault 33 and steps onto the surface world for the first time and has to contend with its whacky and weird inhabitants, but we also follow the misadventures of Squire Maximus (Aaron Moten) of the Brotherhood of Steel as he tries to rise through the ranks. No less than two storylines follow the character of Cooper Howard (Walton Goggins), the first as he experiences the events leading up to the Great War first-hand, and the second in the present, where Howard, now transformed into an immortal ghoul by radiation, is a bounty hunter searching for the tech-macguffin. Amusingly, these characters map to three distinct playstyles for the game: Lucy as the optimistic do-gooder, Maximus as the bumbling anything-goes character, and Cooper as the murderhobo whose first response to even the merest hint of a challenge is comically over-the-tope ultraviolence.

These characters are surrounded by an utter galaxy of great supporting turns, from the small to the substantial. Johnny Pemberton as Squire Thaddeus steels every scene he's in (and demonstrates what over-encumbrance would look like in real life). Moises Arias has the meatiest dramatic subplot as Lucy's brother, who stays behind in Vault 33 to investigate some weird goings-on at home (ably supported by Dave Register as Cousin Chet). Leslie Uggams (Deadpool's Blind Al) is outstanding as Betty, a senior member of Vault 33's ruling council. Kyle MacLachlan as Lucy's father Hank is obviously brilliant. Lost and Person of Interest's (strangely ageless) Michael Emerson is terrific as a troubled scientist on the run. Matt Berry, Michael Rapaport and Chris Parnell all have small, but memorable moments of scene-stealing excellence. Also a word of approval to the latest incarnation of  Dogmeat (sorry, CX404), who is present and correct and portrayed as they would appear in-game (and you start realising that such a canine might not be altogether right in the head).

As excellent as the cast is the production design. Many production designs on adaptations like to change all the designs (presumably so they can put the new designs in their portfolios), but the guys on Fallout clearly just took designs from the games and whack them on screen. The vaults all look like they've been snapped together from the prefab pieces in Fallout 4's Vault-Tec DLC. Even the door buttons look exactly the same. Characters improbably heal quickly from ludicrous injuries by just injecting lore-accurate stimpaks. The creatures are pretty much high-res versions from the game, although they do throw in a couple of new entries. The Brotherhood power armour is all fantastic. Nothing's been changed here for the sake of change, and, to paraphrase someone involved in the franchise, it just works.

The TV show certainly is not perfect, though. At eight hours there's a couple of moments of wheel-spinning. The shifts in tone mostly work, but there's a few jarring shifts that aren't as well-signposted. The Vault 33 storyline is a bit thin and is strung out across the entire season through relatively brief sequences, maybe that could have been punched up a little bit. There's one continuity error regarding a date on a chalkboard which caused some fans to freak the hell out, but the debate over that was later shut down (and also by the cliffhanger ending of the season). This isn't a very weighty series, it doesn't have the emotional depth of, say, The Last of Us, but then it's not really aiming for that so that's not much of a complaint.

Fallout: The Gogglebox Version - Season 1 (****) is relentlessly entertaining, well-acted with just the right degree of dark humour, tragedy and horror. It's good pulp entertainment which is both true to the source material but also brings some more interesting ideas to the franchise (like the ensemble cast and the greater focus on the pre-war era). It's not the highest of art, and some will bounce right off it, but it does what it's trying to do with aplomb. The show is available now worldwide on Amazon Prime Television. A second season has already been commissioned.

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