In Review: Fallout

Review by Tim Robins

Based on one of the greatest video games of all time, Fallout is the story of haves and have-nots in a world in which there’s almost nothing left to have. 200 years after the apocalypse, the gentle denizens of luxury fallout shelters are forced to return to the incredibly complex, gleefully weird and highly violent universe waiting for them above...

Falllout (TV Series, 2024)

Fallout, the eight-episode American TV series from Amazon and Bethesda, is enormous fun, even if its world – a post-apocalyptic wilderness – will look rather familiar to readers of 2000AD’s Judge Dredd, particularly that character’s wanderings across the Cursed Earth in the “Dead Man” storyline.

The TV series is based on the Fallout video games, the first of which was released in 1997. I haven’t played the games, but I know they have developed an extensive “lore” over their four editions and spin-offs including Fallout: ‘76 and the much-loved Fallout: New Vegas.

As far as I can see, the TV series captures a lot of the look of the game. The props department has lovingly replicated the games consumer culture including cans of Nuke-Cola and the bobble-headed Vault-Boy, publicity icon for the Vault-Tec organisation.

Falllout (TV Series, 2024)

My first glimpse of the world’s blend of 1950s-style and retro scifi designs of Fallout was a black and white gif showing a tentacled robot drifting around an apparently mid-century kitchen and ushering school children out of the Kitchen door. This, I subsequently learnt, is a “Mr Handy” (voiced by Matt Berry in the TV series), your robot friend that’s fun to be with – unless it’s trying to harvest your organs.

Fallout wears its influences on its sleeve. The first game even featured a TARDIS that randomly popped out of nowhere as, come to think of it, the TARDIS usually does. The games and TV series very obviously take their cue from the 1975 film adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog” – an inspiration confirmed by a film poster, seen later in the series, for A Man and His Dog. Good news Bethesda! Harlan isn’t around to sue you because, if he were alive, I’m sure he would!

Personally, watching the TV series, I was reminded of Richard Lester’s adaptation of Spike Milligan’s The Bedsitting Room (1969). The film sees various characters wander across a post-apocalyptic England scarred by piles of disused boots, dentures and cars. Every now and again, people mutate into things such as a parrot and the titular bedsitting room.

Falllout (TV Series, 2024)
Falllout (TV Series, 2024)

The Fallout TV series begins in a future America where the 1950s never really went away. The setting is a mid-century styled house, furnished with the kinds of ‘futuristic’ designer goods familiar from adverts from our own Fifties – spacey TV sets, sharp profiled sofas – all bathed in an optimism about consumer culture.

Technology has moved on in a retro-cybertech way akin to steampunk. There are no smartphones to be seen, but people do wear clunky Pip-boys, sort of mobile computers, worn on the forearm. These would be incredibly awkward and heavy in real life.

Life in Fallout’s future exists under the shadow of nuclear war. Over one hundred Vaults, fallout shelters, have been built by Vault-Tec with other corporations, to house selected individuals in preparation for repopulating the surface world. After the ‘Great War’ when the bomb finally drops, life in many of the Vaults is as cursed as the land above where, against all expectations, life goes on although not always in human form.

The TV series has obvious differences from the games. As RPGs, the games allow players to adopt characteristics and abilities including clothes, skills at diplomacy and weaponry and choose a name, even if, as YouTuber Hbomberguy points out, thanks to an awkwardly arranged menu, newbies end up naming themselves ‘none’.

The Fallout games aren’t all about killing, but a lot of killing does go on. There are gigantic, salamander-like “Gulpers”, feral Ghouls (zombies by another name) and human factions such as raiders and The Brotherhood of Steel – armoured knights – who look like they have been snatched from a table top game of Warhammer 40K.

Fights can lead to incredibly gory deaths, something the Fallout TV series gleefully represents with scenes of such sudden violence and gore you won’t know whether to look away or laugh. I just winced. It is if the directors always pick the games’ ‘Bloody Mess’ Perk Card.

Falllout (TV Series, 2024)

The TV series manages to create a sense of involvement and discovery, particularly through the eyes of its three main characters each representing a different aspect of the world. The cast are excellent, and draw us into their own personal anxieties and motives.

Ella Purnell plays Lucy MacLean who lives in the apparently idyllic Vault 33 with her brother and Father. When Lucy’s Father is captured by raiders, Lucy goes in search of him, a quest that leads her to discover what the world outside has to offer. Purnell plays Lucy as a Candede figure, brought up to see the best in every person and situation.

Lucy’s panglossian world view is confounded when she meets a cynical Ghoul, played by Walton Goggins. ‘The Ghoul’, as the credits name him, is a mutated actor, named Cooper Howard, who lived some 200 years ago, dating back before the war. As the series progresses, we learn more about The Ghoul’s life story and his pre-war involvement in selling the idea of the Vaults to the American public.

Finally, we meet Maximus, played by Aaron Moten, an all-too fallible squire to a Knight of The Brotherhood of Steel. Bullied while training and humiliated by his Knight (he is forced to clean the Knight’s codpiece and he later crosses swords with The Ghoul and helps Lucy on an improbable quest to deliver a severed head to the leader of the raiders who kidnapped her Father.)

Through the characters’ various intersecting quests, we experience different aspects of the Fallout World, learning how it came to be, how it functions and the lines of conflict between and within its factions. Although the series has a throughline revealing the origins of the vaults, there are plenty of diversionary moments mirroring the games’ many missions and ‘fetch quests’.

As The Ghoul says, the Wasteland’s Golden Rule is “Thou shall get sidetracked every Goddamn time!”

I did find the constant use of 1950s songs on the soundtrack more than a little tiresome. In the TV show, the music appears to be used entirely ironically, to juxtapose pre-holocaust idealism with post holocaust realities. And although there may be a structural need to use the songs in every episode, I found myself yelling at my laptop, “Enough, already! I’ve got the joke!” I am told that the music has a more nuanced role in the games themselves.

The Ghoul’s Spagetti-Western, Lone Gunman act is a little wearing. We’ve seen it all before (again, see 2000AD’s “Dead Man”) and, no doubt, we’ll see it all again. Then again, spotting references can be part of the fun. When one character announces, “A ghoul can’t abide a Chicken!” I was bemused to recall the Nome King’s aversion to chickens (and their eggs) in Return to Oz (1985).

The set and location dressing is amazing even if, as I subsequently found out, Fallout was mostly shot in front of those digital VFX ‘Volume’ – digital screens that, along with props, simulate locations. ‘Volume’ gained particular prominence during the Covid-19 Pandemic and, used properly as here, is absolutely convincing.

One of many scenes that particularly caught my eye was a moment where Vault 33’s film equipment – projecting a pastoral idyll on the walls of the vault – breaks down. As the vault dwellers hide from merciless raiders, the celluloid in the projector begins to burn. The Vault’s ‘sky’ begins to echo the searing flames of a nuclear blast. This scene is an excellent indication of how Volume technology can be used in the hands of a skilled director and the directors here are very skilled.

There can’t have been many gamers who were looking forward to a TV adaptation of Fallout, but, judging by reactions online, the series has succeeded in capturing the spirit, look, characters and violence of the world. There has been the usual controversy about the series being ‘woke’. You can join that mob if you wish, but just be aware that they are arguing that Cooper Howard’s marriage to an African American woman is Hollywood propaganda, promoting mixed-race marriages. Sometimes YouTube really is a spiritual wasteland.

For less obviously troubled gamers, the Fallout TV series has caused controversy because, in extending and modifying the Fallout time line, it appears to have violated established continuity. That said, the seasoned YouTube critic UpIsNotJump has deemed episodes as “adequate”. High praise from that quarter.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed the quirky, TV world, in which every moment leads me face to face with a Cyclopean mutant, a brain in a mobile tank or humans caught mid-ghoulification.

For the rest of us, I’m pleased to say that a second season of Fallout has been greenlit and I can’t wait to see it. Even though you don’t have to have played the Fallout games to enjoy the TV series, after watching it you may be inspired to give them a go. I certainly am.

Tim Robins

Fallout is available on Amazon Prime here in the UK

Categories: Games, Other Worlds, Television

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1 reply

  1. I played two of the fallout videogames, and enjoyed both of them, with Fallout New Vegas being in my list of 20 best videogames ever. So when I heard about the TV series I was really curious, the poster looked promising and the comments I read online too. I didn’t go past the first episode and I don’t think I am going to continue watching the TV series. It was boring. The main problem was that I couldn’t click with any of the characters, including the main character, I cared about none of them. I don’t know why, but they felt disconnected from the story. The soundtrack also put me out of the story in various moments (while the soundtrack of the videogames worked perfectly). The visuals were really good, the dresses, scenography, etc were all done very nicely, and the world building looked promising, and but this was maybe the only positive I can say about that episode I watched.
    It was interesting though to read your review, as there are many elements I completely missed (I have never seen the movie a Boy and his dog, but you made me curious, so I will check it out)
    Thank you for your review 🙂

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