Three episodes in, the Fallout TV series absolutely nails it

SAMUEL AXON / Ars technica

Washington: Amazon has had a rocky history with big, geeky properties making their way onto Prime Video. The Wheel of Time wasn’t for everyone, and I have almost nothing good to say about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Fallout, the first season of which premiered this week, seems to break that bad streak. All the episodes are online now, but I’ve watched three episodes so far. I love it.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the games that inspired it, so I can only speak to that experience; I don’t know how well it will work for people who never played the games. But as a video game adaptation, it’s up there with The Last of Us.In my view, Fallout is about three things: action, comedy, and satire. In this spoiler-free review of the first three episodes, I’ll go over each of these touchstones and discuss how the show hit them or didn’t.

I hope to find the time to revisit the show with another, much more spoiler-y article sometime next week after I’ve seen the rest of the episodes, and we’ll save discussions about the story for then.

Fallout as an action spectacle

To say Fallout is about high-octane action might be a controversial statement, given the divide between fans of the first two games (turn-based tactical RPGs) and most of the newer games (open-world action RPGs).

Hyperviolence was being depicted and simulated in those original titles even if they weren’t part of the action genre, so I hope you’ll agree that one would expect some action and gore in a TV adaptation regardless of which Fallout games you liked.

Boy, does this show deliver. While there is some dispute over which genre the Fallout games are supposed to be, there’s no such confusion about Fallout the TV series. If it were at Blockbuster in the ’80s or ’90s, its box would be in the “Action” section.

All three episodes have at least one big-screen-worthy action set piece. They’re not expertly choreographed like a John Wick movie, but they’re thrilling regardless—mostly because of how extreme and darkly funny the violence can be.The first big action sequence in the first episode reminded me that this show is coming to us by way of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, producers of HBO’s Westworld series. As in that show, Fallout‘s violence can be sudden, brutal, and casual. Heads explode from shotgun blasts like popped bubbles in Cronenbergian splatters. Someone’s face gets ripped right off, and another person gets a fork plunged into their eyeball.

Fallout‘s gore goes beyond Westworld’s shock factor into the territory of humor, and that’s clearly intentional. Homages to the Bethesda games’ slow-motion VATS kills are aplenty, with gratuitous shots of bullets tearing through bodies and painting the walls red.

It’s so over the top it that doesn’t bother me; it’s cartoon violence, ultimately. Most of the time, I enjoy it, though a couple of instances of dog-related violence didn’t feel too great. But if you’re squeamish, you’re going to want to steer clear. Of course, the games were like this, too. It just hits a little differently when it’s live action.

Fallout as a comedy

There are numerous executive producers attached to this show, including Nolan, Joy, and Bethesda Game Studios’ Todd Howard, among others. But the two people most creatively responsible for what we’re seeing here are the writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet (Tomb RaiderCaptain Marvel) and Graham Wagner (Portlandia, Silicon ValleyThe Office).

That makes sense—you have one showrunner with action and video game adaptation chops and another known for comedy.

The Fallout games are hilarious—goofy, even, and that tracks right into the show. It’s not always as laugh-out-loud funny as I expected (though it sometimes is), but it’s definitely fun, and there are some strong jokes.

It’s hard to discuss them without spoiling some punchlines, but a lot of the humor comes from the fact that one of the show’s three central characters grew up deeply sheltered, both literally and figuratively. “Okey-dokey,” she says in the face of the most horrific situations imaginable. The contrast really works.

There’s humor in other places in the show, too, especially if you like dark humor. As I said a moment ago, the violence is hilarious if you have the stomach for it. Like the games, the show has many winks and nods.

I’d like to see a little more of this in the future than there is now, but it’s enough for it to feel like, well, Fallout.


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Fallout as a social commentary

Take a gander at the user score on Metacritic, and you’ll see about two-thirds of the respondents giving it high marks. They praise the art direction, the humor, the characters, and the action sequences.

The games were known for all those things, but they were also known for having something to say—for a sharp critical commentary on the worst parts of American culture.

The other one-third of those Metacritic users say the show is terrible, but when I looked at the individual negative reviews, most were from people who said they stopped watching after one or two episodes because the show was “woke,” as is so often the case with user reviews. With many shows and movies, I at least know what they’re talking about, even if I disagree—like if there is clumsily expressed messaging that doesn’t fit a show’s larger themes.

But with Fallout, I sincerely have no idea what’s triggering them in this show, unless they object to the mere fact that one of the show’s three protagonists is female, or that there are a couple of non-heterosexual minor characters in the periphery of the story. If that’s the case, there’s no reaching those people, I suppose, which is too bad—they’re missing out on a great show!

If anything, my biggest personal complaint about the first three episodes of Fallout is that they’re short on the social commentary and satirical bite the games are known for.

From the capitalist versus communist Cold War background or the elevated 1950s aesthetic, to quest lines and factions that are explicitly about the evils of corporate greed or the dangers of gung-ho nationalism, you’d be hard-pressed to play through an hour of a Fallout game without seeing that this franchise has a Point of View. At times, it’s almost a sort of post-apocalyptic, sci-fi South Park lampooning the heart of 20th-century American culture.

In the first three episodes, that’s just… not there. There are a few hints that it may emerge later—particularly in the pre-war scenes involving Walton Goggins’ character, where the Hollywood blacklist seems that it may become a plot point—but I’m still not sure after more than three hours with the show whether those hints will lead to something. I’d love to eat my words when I write a spoiler-heavy follow-up article next week after I’ve seen the remaining episodes.

Fallout as a video game adaptation

You don’t have to have played the games to appreciate the action or comedy in Fallout, but there’s obviously a whole additional layer here for people who’ve been playing the games for years.

Many of the worst video adaptations took big departures from the source material—I’m looking at you, 1993 live-action Super Mario Bros. It wasn’t the entire reason they were bad, but it seemed like the creatives making those films or TV series never had much confidence in the material that was given to them.

Not so with Fallout. This might be tied with HBO’s The Last of Us for the “most faithful video game adaptation ever” award.

So far, no specific characters have returned from the games, but that’s OK; characters only rarely appeared in multiple Fallout games, too. But the themes, the visuals, the specific ingredients of this entertainment cocktail—even the general arc of the story—is ripped straight out of the Bethesda renditions of Fallout (Fallout 3, in particular).Almost every shot includes something for fans of the games to recognize, from Nuka-Cola bottles to Assaultron robot frames to Vault Boy bobbleheads. Sometimes, this sort of fan service bugs me, as in a show like Star Trek: Picard, where all those references are treated with such reverence and celebration and “look at what we did here!” sweeping music that it takes you out of enjoying the story.

In Fallout, it all feels natural. If any emphasis is placed, there’s a reason for it that works just as well for someone with no prior familiarity.

I can’t go into detail about how it mirrors Fallout 3’s story and themes without spoiling anything, but trust me: It’s all there.

I’ve played the original Fallout, as well as Fallout 3New Vegas4, and 76. (I never played Fallout 2; I’ll get to it.) I loved all of them in different ways. As a fan of the franchise, I feel the team behind this TV series has nailed the tone and the aesthetic.

We’ll see if that holds up as the story progresses, but I’m optimistic.


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