TV: Fallout (Season 1)

Sometimes, I’ll watch a thing not with any inherent interest but out of a drive to stay current with the pop-cultural moment. Such was the case with Fallout, a splashy, colorful adaptation of a popular video-game series. The show had lured enough high-end talent and generated enough buzz that it seemed worth a go. While not without assets, it just didn’t land for me.

Set in a post-apocalyptic western US, it paints a bleak picture of an irradiated future—one that saw its origins in an alternate past. Total nuclear war devastated the world back in the 1950s, but forward-thinking pioneers during that era built a system of self-sustaining vaults—including Vault 33, where our story begins. Young Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) is the daughter of the vault’s overseer, Hank (Kyle MacLachlan), and grew up under his benevolent rule in a society where “do unto others” is enshrined as the golden rule. Lucy is slated for marriage to a random stranger from a neighboring vault, part of a gene-pool exchange program to reduce inbreeding. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a sham wedding engineered by violent raiders from the surface, who took over the neighboring bunker and used it to stage an invasion. A devastating confrontation follows during which Hank is abducted by the raiders’ leader, Moldaver (Sarita Choudhury). This prompts Lucy to go—against the orders of her risk-averse vault-mates—on a rescue mission to the surface. Her dangerous journey sets her on a collision course with two others: Maximus (Aaron Moten), a squire in a paramilitary cult called the Brotherhood of Steel, and “the Ghoul” (Walton Goggins), an undead mutant outlaw who roams the Wasteland pursuing his own ruthless agenda.

I’ve never played the source video game, but I was aware of it, and intrigued by its alt-history setup and retrofuturistic worldbuilding. Fallout the TV show makes some good decisions bringing the game to life, embracing a cheeky, seriocomic tone that contrasts jazzy, old-fashioned sensibilities against contemporary standards for dystopian F/X and graphic violence. Bringing the spunky charisma that she brought to both Yellowjackets and her voice work on Arcane, Purnell is a winning lead, while Goggins is appropriately cast as the formidable big bad. There’s also an impressive “stunt cast” of well deployed support, including MacLachlan, Matt Berry, Zach Cherry, Michael Cristofer, Michael Emerson, Dallas Goldtooth, Chris Parnell, Johnny Pemberton, Michael Rappaport, and Leslie Uggams, among others.

But, in the end, consider me underwhelmed. The primary issue is that the “A plot”—which entangles the lead trio in a survivalist, desert future—is simplistic and overfamiliar. Lucy’s mission to find her father doesn’t possess much narrative firepower, nor does the parallel pursuit of a MacGuffin-y artifact that drives the surface’s warring factions. Moten is an inscrutable tertiary lead, whose unreadable motivations and weird reactions make him hard to get behind. A chemistry-free romance between Lucy and Maximus feels forced, while the Ghoul’s aimless posturing grows tiresome in how expected it is. More interesting is the history of the vaults—explored in the present by Lucy’s shrewd, cynical brother Norman (Moisés Arias) and, even more effectively, in a period-flashback origin story for the Ghoul, as western movie star Cooper Howard (Goggins again, here in human form) fills in world-building history against a Cold War backdrop of nuclear paranoia. The past threads are compelling enough to make the springbacks into dystopian gameland a letdown. While the writing ties all the threads together well enough by the finale, the journey is erratic and unevenly paced.

Ultimately, this one isn’t without fun qualities and decent moments, but also feels both shopworn and market-tested, without a particularly strong narrative vision. As pop-culture phenomena go, it didn’t make me feel as wildly out of step as The Mandalorian did, but ultimately I found it pretty skippable.

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