The one show to watch before HBO's 'The Last of Us'

Pedro Pascal as Joel in HBO's The Last of Us
(Image credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO)

Having seen the first four episodes early for my The Last of Us review, I can tell you that this HBO Max series is fantastic (at least so far).

I can also say that it's going to be a thrill both for fans of the game (who will arguably know too much going in) and newcomers alike, because I saw the first episode screened in a theater filled with influencers and some who knew the source material. And that theater was a raucous room at times.

But, just as importantly, I need to tell you about the show I finished watching immediately after my screeners of The Last of Us. I picked it out because it's the other show that The Last of Us (the show) co-creator and co-writer Craig Mazin did before this series, and it's the show that made me sure he was perfect for the job.

That show is 2019's Chernobyl (also on HBO Max), and it's one of the best shows you've probably never seen. And having both of these shows is a reminder why HBO Max is the best streaming service.

Why you should watch Chernobyl before The Last of Us

Chernobyl, much like The Last of Us, is not an 'easy' show to watch. But unlike the Last of Us, Chernobyl is difficult to watch because it's based on depressingly true events. It tells the lesser-known stories about the April 1986 disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

Bleak from the beginning, with Jared Harris' Valery Legasov making a harsh decision early in the first scene, Chernobyl is about the people who lived and died during the event. And it showcases the often-impossible choices they had to make. Its two main characters, Legasov and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), are real people. The former tried to assist in the cleanup efforts, the latter was a politician who doubted him at first.

Smoke billows out of a building in Chernobyl

(Image credit: HBO via YouTube)

You'll meet many more people whose lives were changed forever. A firefighter (Adam Nagaitis) and first responder to the disaster at Chernobyl, and his wife (Jessie Buckley) who tries to visit him in the hospital. 

Later in the five-episode miniseries, rising star Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin, Eternals) appears as a civilian draftee brought in to help limit the immediate and long-term damage. 

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

(Image credit: HBO via YouTube)

All of these roles and facts tie together in Chernobyl to tell a story and convey a serious set of emotions and facts. And it made creator, writer and executive producer Craig Mazin a two-time Emmy Award winner, for overall Outstanding Limited Series and Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special. 

Chernobyl reviews: What the critics said

Let's go through the critical consensus, to make sure you realize this isn't just one person's opinion about Chernobyl. First off, it earned a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score from 104 critics reviews. 

Emily St. James at Vox called Chernobyl "always compelling and often terrifying." Sonia Saraiya at Vanity Fair declared it "not just excellent television," but "paradigm-shifting historical storytelling, the kind of tale that alters, ever-so-subtly, the texture of the real world."

And Melanie McFarland for wrote "The performances turned in by [Stellan] Skarsgård, Emily Watson and Jared Harris are passionate and nuanced enough to compel the tough viewers to gut out the squeamish parts."

Outlook: Chernobyl was proof that The Last of Us show will be great

Similar to Chernobyl, The Last of Us is a portrait of loss during a massive catastrophe. And Chernobyl is such an emotionally powerful show, fantastic at telling personal stories, that it gave me confidence that The Last of Us won't be a sterile, cookie-cutter remake of the video game it's based on. So far, for the first four episodes, I can say that all with confidence.

The Last of Us poster featuring Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal

(Image credit: HBO)

Each character feels more alive and human than in the game, and that's not just because you're watching the likes of Pedro Pascal (as Joel), Bella Ramsey (as Ellie) and Anna Torv (as Tess) playing them on screen. The Last of Us reminds me of Chernobyl because it leans into the humanity of these characters during crisis. Nowhere is that more felt than in episode 3, which I dare not spoil.

Chernobyl, worth watching on its own, will give you an idea of how powerful a Craig Mazin show can be, and that's why you should give it a watch before The Last of Us.

Next: 'The Last of Us' is the best video game adaptation ever, here's why. Also read about what you need to know before you watch The Last of Us.

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.