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Review | ‘Fallout’ is sweet, sharp pulp — and great post-apocalyptic TV

“Fallout” layers sharp pulp writing with the nostalgia politics of what “made America great.” There’s no post-apocalypse story quite like this in video games, and now, TV.

“Fallout,” an adaptation of the best-selling game series released Wednesday on Prime Video, echoes many stories about the end of the world — including HBO’s “Westworld,” another creation from executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. “Fallout’s” most distinguishing aspect is how it depicts a nuclear-ravaged America in arrested development, obsessed with 1950s culture and norms. (Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, which owns Prime Video.)

The Fallout series of games were always ripe for adaptation but not because of any specific narrative. Rather, the world building, from a team of game creators led by Tim Cain in 1997, rivals that of George Lucas or J.R.R. Tolkien. Wrapping it in 20th-century aesthetics of art deco and Coca-Cola makes it feel all the more relatable and accessible. In “Fallout,” the three global nuclear powers destroy each other. A special class of people (later called Vault Dwellers) were able to hide out in individually numbered fallout shelters. Lucy MacLean (Ella Purnell) is our protagonist from Vault 33.

The show wisely understood that the most distinctive and interesting human story in this world is that of the Vault Dwellers. In “Fallout,” each vault has its own purpose. (One famous example from the games, Vault 11, revolved around a twisted democratic experiment in which citizens were annually required to vote on whom to sacrifice.) The binge-worthy mystery box question for the show: What is the purpose of Vault 33? The show tracks the journey of two of its Dwellers: Lucy, who leaves the vault after an invasion by mysterious strangers, and her brother Norm (Moisés Arias), who sticks with the survivors as they search for understanding.

This is the rare video game adaptation that welcomes and embraces the quiet moments. Large chunks of the show resemble the introductory, wordless montages of Pixar’s “WALL-E” and “Up.” The game-accurate soundtrack filled with early-20th-century pop (Bing Crosby, the Ink Spots) add to this vibe of a modern silent film, where cinematography and sound are their own pleasures.

Purnell (“Yellowjackets”) shares top billing with Aaron Moten as Maximus, a soldier training with an isolationist group of supersoldiers called the Brotherhood of Steel. Postwar lunacy is on full display as Maximus navigates peer pressure and fanaticism to survive and maintain a sense of manhood. Video game military machismo is tested and lampooned in laugh-out-loud slapstick violence involving power armor and some mutated wildlife. Moten turns in a convincing performance as a wildly ignorant yet clever survivor, and his story contains the biggest surprises.

Less surprising is our third lead character, the Ghoul, played by Walton Goggins, his granite face carved and mutated into a snarling, black-hat zombie cowboy. It’s a charismatic, scene-stealing performance, but his character relies too much on “Man in Black” tropes that Nolan and Joy thoroughly explored in “Westworld.” It’s far from boring, but a cowboy’s mean spirit isn’t as fearsome when it’s predictable. Luckily, his backstory (told through ample flashbacks throughout the season) contains earnest humanity.

The best part about the world of the Fallout games, and now this show, is that it’s among the most relatable science-fiction wastelands. Unlike other geek properties, this ain’t about superheroes or Super Mario. The series is about the human experiment as a literal science project. With “Fallout,” maybe we still won’t like the final result, as high-concept Nolan projects tend to fizzle when they run long. But also typically Nolan, this is a winning, must-see first season.

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