Scott D. Pierce: Zombies terrorize a post-apocalyptic Salt Lake City in HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’

It’s one of the few scripted TV series that includes scenes set in Utah’s capital city.

(Liane Hentscher | HBO) Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey star in "The Last of Us."

Salt Lake City takes center stage in the season finale of “The Last of Us” on Sunday … sort of.

HBO’s zombie series is perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the current TV season. It’s a simply terrific show that’s based on a video game and travels down a path that seemed beaten to death by “The Walking Dead” and its spinoffs.

The opening of the first episode of “The Last of Us” was set in 2003, when a parasitic fungus that turns people into zombies infects just about everyone. The story then jumped to 2023, when the survivors are fighting to stay alive.

The narrative revolves around tough, bitter Joel (Pedro Pascal, from “The Mandalorian”), who is tasked with transporting 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsey, from “Game of Thrones”) through a devastated America, from Boston to Salt Lake City. Ellie is immune to the fungus, and may hold the key to a cure or a vaccine.

Sunday’s season finale (7 p.m., HBO) takes place primarily in the ruined capital city of the Beehive State, but it wasn’t filmed here. Most of the HBO series was filmed in Alberta, Canada. There was also some filming in and around Kansas City. But none anywhere in Utah.

(HBO) The season finale of "The Last of Us" airs Sunday, March 12, 2023, on HBO.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who watches Sunday’s episode. Despite what its detractors might say, Salt Lake City is not an post-apocalyptic hellscape.

C’mon. It’s CGI. Duh.

In the “Last of Us” video game, when the zombie outbreak began, Salt Lake City was used as a quarantine zone by the military, which built tall, concrete walls around the city and used a hospital (the fictional Saint Mary’s) as a base to try to find a cure. The city was later taken over by the Fireflies, a militia that fights against oppressive military control.

When Joel and Ellie arrived, zombies and giraffes (which escaped the zoo) were roaming the city. The zombies resided mostly in tunnels under the city — including in the (fictional) subway.

Keep in mind that the TV show is markedly different from the game. So maybe no giraffes. But, in one preview clip, there are train tracks running through a tunnel. Sigh.

Doesn’t happen often

“The Last of Us” is a relative rarity — there haven’t been many scripted TV series that take place in Utah, and even fewer that take place in or around Salt Lake City.

| Courtesy The Henrickson family prays in a scene from HBO's "Big Love."

• The polygamists in HBO’s “Big Love” (2006-2011) lived in Sandy, and characters did go into Salt Lake City. However, the series was filmed in California, with the exception of a few mostly exterior shots in Utah.

• The kids in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” (2019- , Disney+) attend Salt Lake City’s East High, where most of the first two seasons were filmed. But not Season 3. The “High School Musical” movies were also filmed at East High, but the setting was Albuquerque.

• The short-lived CBS show “Boys of Twilight” (1992, CBS) was set in the fictional town of Twilight, Utah. Much of the series was filmed in Park City, so it was sort of Salt Lake City-adjacent.

There have also been a number of TV series that filmed here, but Utah was playing the part of somewhere else. That list includes:

• “Crossroads” (1992-93, ABC) filmed 11 of its 12 episodes in Utah, and only one was actually set in the Beehive State. And not in Salt Lake City.

• “Touched by an Angel” (1994-2003) had a different setting pretty much every week.

• “Promised Land” (1996-99, CBS), a spinoff of “Touched,” was on the road its first two seasons before settling in Denver.

• “Cover Me” (2000-2001) was on the road, and not in Utah.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune File Photo) The WB television series "Everwood" was filmed in Utah. Its cast included Treat Williams, Gregory Smith and Vivien Cardone.

• “Everwood” (2002-06, The WB) was set in Colorado.

• “Blood and Oil” (2015, ABC) was set in North Dakota.

• “Yellowstone” (2018- , Paramount Network) filmed its first three seasons primarily in Utah, and — though the storylines take place primarily in Montana — a few scenes were set in Salt Lake City.

• “Mosaic” (2019, HBO) was both filmed and set in Park City, but the six-episode series didn’t get to Salt Lake City.

(Michelle Faye | FX) Gil Birmingham as Bill Taba and Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

• “Under the Banner of Heaven” (2023, FX) was set almost entirely in Utah and entirely filmed in Alberta, Canada. There were multiple scenes in Salt Lake City in the seven-episode miniseries.

You get the idea.

Remember, we’re talking about scripted TV shows, so the list doesn’t include shows like “Breaking Pointe,” “Diesel Brothers,” “Sister Wives” and “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City.”

Zombies vs. the Oscars

When Episode 5 of “The Last of Us” went up against the Super Bowl, the Powers That Be at Warner Bros. Discovery blinked a bit. The HBO premiere of the episode still aired opposite the game, but the zombie show also started streaming two days earlier on HBO Max.

That’s not happening this week, when “The Last of Us” (7 p.m., HBO) goes up against the Academy Awards (6 p.m., ABC).

(Chris Pizzello | Invision/AP) Jimmy Kimmel, shown here at the 2018, returns as host of the Oscars on Sunday.

Can the zombies beat the Oscars? Maybe. The show has been trending up, with 8.1 million viewers for the most recent episode. Last year, the Oscars drew 16.6 million viewers — 13.7 million on ABC, the rest on streaming and digital. That’s the second smallest audience ever; the numbers in 2021, when 10.5 million watched, were worse. This from a show that used to regularly attract between 40 million and 50 million viewers, peaking at 55 million in 1998 (when “Titanic” won a record-tying 11 awards).

At my house, we’ll switch to HBO and watch “The Last of Us” (it’s a 45-minute episode) and then switch back to the Oscars. That way, we can fast-forward through all the commercials and the boring bits of the always bloated Oscar-cast. We’ll probably catch up by the time the awards show ends.

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