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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    ‘Fallout’ review: Walton Goggins as a swaggering, post-apocalyptic cowboy

    If fears about “the bomb” permeated life in the mid-20th century, the video game “Fallout” takes that premise to its worst conclusion. In a post-nuclear wasteland, some survivors have been recreating their 1950s-era idyll underground in elaborate bomb shelters called vaults. Those less lucky have been eking out a life on the surface, where it is dusty and brutal, and nasty oddities abound in the form of ghouls, who exist in a liminal space between human and zombie. How the hell did we get here? The Amazon TV adaptation explains by toggling between two timelines: Los Angeles of 2077 and what remains of the place a couple of centuries into the future.

    Inside Vault 33, the community’s cult-like tranquility is invaded by surface dwellers who kidnap the man in charge (Kyle MacLachlan) and this sets the story in motion. His daughter Lucy ventures outside for the first time on a mission to save him and learns some ugly truths about the inevitable consequences of end-stage capitalism along the way.

    Played by Ella Purnell, Lucy is perky and naive but exceptionally skilled with a weapon. Her trek on the surface is one long rude awakening, but what do you expect? She’s literally been sheltered all her life. She’s more or less introduced as a character worthy of “Leave It to Beaver” who is unceremoniously yanked into a darker show by the end of the first episode. That’s typical of “Fallout’s” sense of humor, a lot of which comes through in the production design (which takes a page from the 1999 comedy “Blast From the Past” in amusing ways) and the intentional tonal discord that is irony-drenched and kitschy but not actually funny (a missed opportunity). Chris Parnell and Matt Berry show up separately, and briefly, for comic relief as well.

    I haven’t played “Fallout,” but it came up when I wrote about Marvel’s “WandaVision” in 2021. I was curious if younger generations would understand its parodies of shows like “I Love Lucy” and Northwestern professor and screenwriter Brett Neveu was convinced many viewers would, thanks to this game specifically, where “only the pop culture from the 1950s has remained behind. So the jokes that are in the game, the references, they are all part of a culture that is long gone. And if you invest in this puzzle, you have to know these reference points.” Stylistically, the show has stuck with this idea to an extent, primarily through its old-school needle drops.

    The hellscape on the surface is unpredictable and dangerous. This has left a power vacuum to be exploited by a brutal militia called the Brotherhood of Steel, in which knights don enormous metal exoskeletons and travel with lowly squires. One of those squires is Maximus (Aaron Moten), who is as out of his element as Lucy. Their individual journeys are the show’s weakest portions, but once they finally team up, the pair starts to feel like more than narrative conceits.

    It is Walton Goggins, with his ever-present drawl, who gives “Fallout” its real reason for being. He is the third main character and arguably the most important because his arc serves as a through line. Before the nuclear apocalypse, he is a Hollywood star named Cooper Howard who is famous for his good-guy roles in Westerns. In the future, he has transformed into a leathery, noseless, centuries-old survivor who has shed the moral compass of his former self. His character in both timelines gets all the complexity that’s otherwise missing in the series (which has been renewed for a second season). Nothing is as interesting as when Goggins is on screen. The gory violence in “Fallout” isn’t my speed, and there’s far too much of it in the early going. But the show won me over when his ghoul forcibly asserts his will over someone who, mid-tussle, bites off his index finger. In return, he slices off their index finger: “Now that right there is the closest thing we’ve had to honest exchange so far.”

    It’s such a wonderfully weird moment (don’t worry, they both somehow get their respective fingers reattached) and I wish there were more like it. When someone asks, “How do you live like this? Why keep going?,” he offers no answer. His quest is revealed late in the season, but his wanderings up to that point are fascinating all the same. When he stumbles into an abandoned store called Super Duper Mart (repurposed for nefarious doings), he finds a copy of an old movie he starred in that has somehow survived all these years on videotape and he sits there slack-jawed, watching footage of his former self.

    Production designer Howard Cummings gives distinctive looks to each time and place, and the vaults in particular aim to recreate a sunny normality with a hermetically sealed twist. But nothing about the show, from creators Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner, has a light touch. “Westworld” creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan are executive producers here and you can sense some of that show’s DNA here as well.

    The storytelling doesn’t fully gel at first. But if you’re patient, “Fallout” reveals itself to be a show with some potent things to say about where we’re headed if we allow corporate interests to dictate the future. Companies with a business model predicated on prepper-style scare tactics (like the show’s fictitious Vault-Tec) will always need to justify their existence. Where “Fallout” stumbles is what it leaves out. It paints a vision of a colorblind world but also introduces a eugenics plotline, which rings hollow considering the show erases the racism and other bigotries that have historically been used to justify this kind of mindset.

    Before the apocalypse, Cooper Howard contemplates what it means to be a “pitchman for the end of the world.” Hollywood is over, a fellow actor tells him: “Hollywood is the past. Forget Hollywood. The future, my friend, is products. You’re a product, I’m a product, the end of the world is a product.”

    Just don’t think too hard about the real-world corporate interests pushing us in that direction, including the one streaming this very series.

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    'FALLOUT'

    3 stars (out of 4)

    Rating: TV-MA

    How to watch: Prime Video

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