Prime Video’s Fallout Adaptation Is the Bomb

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Prime Video’s Fallout Adaptation Is the Bomb

The setting of Fallout is one of extremes. As established in the long-running videogame series, this is a world scorched by nuclear flames, a post-apocalyptic ruin where factions fight over the crumbs of what’s left. While sifting through the wreckage, you’ll find the vestiges of a retrofuturistic America that kept the embers of the Cold War burning for over a century, a ‘50s-tinged hellscape that escalated the jingoism, commercialism, and general vapidity of the Atomic Age for decades until it all boiled over into Armageddon. It’s an alternate history where everything went wrong. But despite all that, these games also get a little silly with it. The Wasteland is grim, but it’s equally wacky, full of dark humor and colorful characters who inhabit a cartoonishly brutal vision of the end.

And now there’s a TV show. Helmed by Lisa Joy and Jonathon Nolan, the co-creators of HBO’s Westworld, Fallout is an eight-part series dropping all at once on Amazon’s Prime Video. It’s an adaptation that faces even more pressure than usual because it’s a canonical sequel to the games, meaning that failure (or, honestly, probably even success) will unleash thousands of diehard fans with Vault Boy and Brotherhood of Steel profile pictures complaining on Twitter.

Thankfully, the show lives up to these weighty expectations, not only translating the franchise’s look and tone to the small screen, but also expanding on many of its underlying ideas as it delivers engaging characters and impressive worldbuilding. While its over-the-top humor and penchant for ultraviolence will undoubtedly alienate a few newcomers, in the end, its more genuine undercurrents shine through as it does justice to this oddball pastiche of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, westerns, and Cold War-era satire.

We follow the exploits of Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell), a Vault Dweller forced to leave the safety of her subterranean bunker, Vault 33, and journey into what’s left of Los Angeles 219 years after the bombs fell. She’s searching for her father (Kyle MacLachlan), who was abducted by raiders, and her only means of locating the kidnapper is a dangerous quest that involves delivering an item that could change the balance of power in the Wasteland (yes, this is a very videogame-y plot setup that also overlaps with Fallout 3).

But of course, she’s not the only one after this prize. Maximus (Aaron Moten) is in on the hunt, a squire in the band of feudal-cosplaying assholes known as the Brotherhood of Steel. He wants to use this opportunity to become anointed as a knight and nab the T-60 power armor and respect that comes with it. The Ghoul (Walton Goggins) is also in the scrum, a gunslinger who has been around since The Great War thanks to mutations caused by nuclear radiation. As Lucy leaves her sheltered life behind to save her dad, she faces harsh truths about the state of the world outside her bubble.

From the moment our intrepid heroine steps out into the wastes, it becomes clear how deeply this show is dedicated to replicating the specific aesthetic of the games. The crooning ballads of mid-20th century pop songs flood the airwaves as we’re treated to the contrast between these wholesome tunes and bleak sand-swept ruins full of bloodletting. One would think this bit would have gotten old over the decades, but it remains effective as ever, these needle-drops of banger oldies, many of which were also featured in the games, setting a fittingly ironic tone.

In addition to licensing the same tracks, a similar degree of obsessive detail is applied to replicating nearly everything else from the source material, like its costumes, weapons, and technology (the Pip-Boys share an identical user interface to Bethesda’s take on the device, for instance). These elements elegantly make the jump to live-action, and the rounded edges of broken-down cars and Mister Handy bots key us in on a decadent Space Age aesthetic buried by layers of grime and viscera, creating a compelling visual landscape.

But beyond this faithfulness acting as fan service for Fallout-heads, these details also help flesh out this space and the various factions found there. For starters, there’s Lucy’s home, Vault 33, one of the many Vault Tec-designed, self-sustaining bunkers where the privileged few hid out as the world burned. These guys kind of suck. The show does a great job poking fun at the delusions of the Vault Dwellers’ American exceptionalist nonsense and how their way of life is an even more extreme mutation of the culture that spawned it, not only mining gags out of this backdrop, but eventually also teasing out a captivating mystery that goes straight to its rotten core. Similarly engaging is the Brotherhood of Steel, a technology-obsessed militia doing their best impression of the Knights Templar as they mix medieval mysticism and futuristic power armor. They’re delusional, dangerous, and similarly ridiculous.

And what helps these groups come across as more than just the punchline of a joke is our central trio of characters, whose arcs are defined by struggling against the absurdities of their upbringings. Much like how the visuals contrast an upbeat tone against the gruesome, Lucy is initially a ball of naivety and Girl Scout-brand optimism due to being brought up in a vault, but her values are tested when she collides head first with the brutality of the outside world. While it could have come across as mean-spirited to see her repeatedly get owned on her adventures, Purnell gives the character a near indomitable sense of kindness that makes her a delight to watch. She may essentially be an ultra-high karma playthrough from the games, but her sanitized beliefs are tested as she grows over the course of this journey.

Maximus is much more morally ambiguous from the jump, in large part because he’s been raised by a cult of technology-worshiping jarheads whose idea of a good time is getting branded with hot irons and beating the shit out of each other. His early actions are difficult to parse in a way that really works, and there’s an enjoyable tension as we wonder if he’ll break free of his programming. And then, perhaps unsurprisingly, Goggins gives a delightful performance as the Hollywood actor-turned-bounty hunter Cooper Howard, his charisma selling quite a few lines that almost certainly would have fallen flat otherwise. While the character initially comes across as slightly one-note in his badassery, cynicism, and penchant for blasting holes in people, as we jump to his past before the nuclear holocaust, it makes way for many of the most compelling sequences in the series.

These scenes, which dive further into a mid-21st century America where the Cold War never ended, are where the show doubles down on some of the most intriguing undercurrents from the games. Considering that this franchise has been written by lots of different people across lots of different studios over the years, there is a lot of variance when it comes to how much a given installment leans into compelling satire. This show ranks up there with the best of them, largely because of how it portrays the past. We see McCarthyism, saber-rattling, and the phony polished sheen of a culture that helped blow everything up. Perhaps most sharply, it lambasts the absurdity of giving this much power to money-grubbing executives in pinstripe suits. In particular, there’s one new detail in these flashbacks that I won’t spoil, but that carries massive implications for what even the games are ultimately “about.” I don’t doubt it will tick off a few existing fans, but it ties in nicely with what this particular tale is trying to do.

In general, perhaps the most pleasant surprise about this adaptation is that it goes further than reveling in the surface-level coolness of the games; in its western-style shootouts, ‘50s-inspired tech, or the striking profile of T-60 power armor. Groups like the Brotherhood of Steel may cut a striking profile in the distance, but they aren’t remotely glorified. Similarly, the series fully engages with how the bright, commercialized look of the pre-war world is a glossy sheen that hides something horrible. Maybe that’s a low bar, but considering a chunk of the fanbase likes to non-ironically quote the satirically-presented American-propaganda-spewing murder robot Liberty Prime, I’m glad that one of those people didn’t get the reins here.

And beyond its bigger ideas, this story successfully ties its many different tones and plot threads together to make for an entertaining journey, culminating in a strong finale that offers just enough closure while also hyping up a follow-up season. The narrative tug of this final stretch reminded me of the strongest points of Joy and Nolan’s previous project, Westworld, and in this case, the established mysteries have satisfying payoffs.

However, as previously alluded to, if there’s one major issue that I think will put off a fair share of viewers, it’s that the show can sometimes be a tad obnoxious due to spurts of overly juvenile humor. It’s not that it can’t be funny, and most of the underlying satirical elements are effective throughout, but early on, a few of the jokes are just too overbearing. Additionally, some of the people we run in the outside world feel too over-the-top, less a sharp critique like with the Vault Dwellers and more an overly broad Mad Max-knockoff. All that said, thankfully, the comedy and everything else is consistent in its back half, making it easier to buy into the story’s bigger ideas and what the characters are going through.

All things considered, I wouldn’t consider myself particularly nostalgic or precious about the things I enjoy, and even if I were, some of the more recent Fallout games lost me to the point where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to return to this setting. Despite this, this show reminded me of why I enjoyed this world to begin with. It dislodged formative memories of exploring the Wasteland and blasting jack-booted Enclave shock troopers as I, perhaps futilely, did my best to make this dumpster fire of a backdrop into an at least marginally better place. Through its excellent emulation of the franchise’s vibes and a strong understanding of its underlying ideas, the Fallout TV series doesn’t only imitate the games, but meaningfully expands on them in a way that radiates confidence.

Fallout premieres Wednesday, April 14th on Prime Video. 

Elijah Gonzalez is the assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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