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Friday, June 21, 2024

'The Last of Us' Isn’t the Last of Anything

Remember when Game of Thrones ended, and people—OK, mainly TV critics—insisted there would never be another television show with the same cultural footprint? A consensus emerged in the media: The Game of Thrones finale heralded the end of an era. We would never again see a show quite so big, so popular, so zeitgeist-defining. It was the “last show we’ll watch together.” It was “the last popular TV show” and “the last great blockbuster TV show.” Even WIRED got in on the action

That was weird, man. 

Four years later, all that proclaiming about the death of the great big TV show looks rather premature. On Sunday, HBO is airing the first season finale of The Last of Us, an adaptation of Naughty Dog’s incredibly popular video game of the same name. While the show has not yet achieved the ratings-supernova status of the final season of Game of Thrones, it is a major critical and commercial hit, one already generating the type of fervent online discussion presumed endangered around the time Daenerys took her infamous heel turn. 

The Last of Us star Pedro Pascal is currently experiencing (enduring?) a stint as television’s heartthrob of the moment, so much so that CNN recently referred to him as, ugh, “the internet’s ‘daddy.’” When The Last of Us played a Linda Ronstadt ballad from more than 50 years ago in a particularly touching episode, its Spotify streams spiked 149,000 percent by the next day. People are planning mushroom-themed finale watch parties. I’m sure the Halloween costumes next year will be something to see. 

The straight-out-the-gate success of The Last of Us should, I hope, kill all that “the monoculture is dead!” chatter once and for all. This conversation happens every time a splashy final season wraps up, but it reached an especially screechy pitch with the end of the dragon show. (With any luck, it’ll kill the phrase “the monoculture” too. The agricultural term doesn’t make much sense as a metaphor—shows are one huge crop?—and barely works as a portmanteau of “monolith” and “culture.” Saying “watercooler TV” is far more straightforward.) 

As long as we have television, we’ll have TV shows that people obsess over and gather to discuss, whether they do it while drinking weak coffee in an office or on Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok. Game of Thrones was not the last of anything, just like Mad Men wasn’t the last of anything, just like Breaking Bad wasn’t the last of anything, just like Lost wasn’t the last of anything, just like The Sopranos wasn’t the last of anything, just like The damn Lone Ranger wasn’t the last of anything. Even during the first season of Covid-19, when offices emptied and actual watercoolers glugged alone in abandoned hallways, we had intense communal reactions to Tiger King and The Last Dance. Part of the reason losing live sports for a time that year was so deeply jarring was because watching them on television together remains such an integral cultural experience.

Have television viewing habits changed in the past? Yes. The rise of cable programming splintered viewership away from the major networks; the rise of DVR and DVD boxed sets meant audiences no longer had to keep appointments to watch their favorite shows, and they were able to watch them in order more easily. (This, in turn, helped nurture highly serialized storytelling.) Netflix’s habit of dropping whole seasons at once turned binge-watching into a commonplace hobby. 

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Television viewing habits are still changing now. The current streaming scene, with too many platforms and too many shows and name changes and mergers and hasty cancelations and back-catalog purges and general dysfunction, makes watching television an increasingly vexing and expensive endeavor. If the situation gets any worse, I suspect a resurgence in pirating is on the horizon. (Also, there needs to be a global moratorium on TV recap podcasts, but that’s an axe I’ll grind another day.)

Part of the reason viewers embraced The Last of Us so quickly is that the story came with a built-in fandom; the game it is based on was a phenomenon in its own right. HBO’s decision to pour resources into adapting a blockbuster video game is part of a larger trend of studios and networks relying on preexisting fictional worlds (or, in terrible industry parlance, “IP”) to lure viewers via familiarity. It’s why Amazon paid a rumored $250 million for the rights to make a Lord of the Rings prequel, and then many more hundreds of millions to shoot it. It’s why Disney’s two big-budget live-action series are both part of the larger Star Wars story. (See also: HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.) Hollywood types love betting on a known quantity; anyone who has ever seen a sequel knows that. The Last of Us is another indicator that this trend will continue to accelerate. 

But the IP-ification of entertainment hasn’t changed how people respond to their favorite shows. Enthusiasm for dissecting prestige television remains high, whether it’s an adaptation or an original. In addition to The Last of Us, HBO has already produced a string of post-GoT pop culture sensations beyond House of the Dragon, including The White Lotus and Mare of Easttown. And its competitors have had their own megahits, like Disney+ with The Mandalorian and Netflix with Squid Game. These shows are obsessively recapped and theorized about, too, just as the upcoming final season of Succession will no doubt be. 

The Last of Us finale isn’t the only “monocultural” television event happening on Sunday evening. It’s airing against the Oscars. Last year’s Academy Awards broadcast had the second-lowest ratings ever, yet it still drew 15.4 million people, a Game of Thrones-worthy figure. And what happened at last year’s ceremony is even clearer evidence that watercooler moments aren’t going extinct. Look, violence is bad—but when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, he inadvertently created a quintessential spectacle for the audience to witness. An absolutely paradigmatic instance of Did you see what happened last night?!—and it was on good old-fashioned network TV. Who knows what will go down this year! Maybe nothing. But if something does happen, people will talk about it together, like we always do. 

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