Halo is one of those few special franchises the notoriety of which transcends the video game genre, even non-gamers know what it is. For many millennials, it was the formative game series of their childhood (albeit not mine, as a filthy Playstation normie). Rumors of a TV adaptation date back over a decade to the days of LAN parties at the height of the games' popularity. It is hard to say exactly why a Halo TV series was not made until now. Rumored projects often had big names like Peter Jackson and Neil Blomkamp attached, yet apparently never materialized even as other video game adaptations came and went, often to tepid reception. Finally, after years of uncertainty, we have reached the conclusion of the show's first season on the "that exists?" streaming service Paramount+. But instead of celebrating it as an achievement, it is unclear whether the long wait made for a better product.
For starters, the series makes some significant departures from the games' expansive and beloved lore. Halo is named for the ring-shaped doomsday weapon that serves as the prime imperative of the protagonist Master Chief, a bioengineered super soldier and enemy number one of the Covenant, an antagonistic and enigmatic alien race. The TV series, however, largely eschews the existential conflict between the two at first in favor of a scaled-down plot focused on Master Chief himself, played by Pablo Schreiber and more commonly referred to as "John" in the show. The driving narrative follows John as he discovers a mysterious artifact only he can interact with. His superiors, including the Frankesnteinian Dr. Halsey, believe the artifact is the key to defeating the Covenant and fulfilling humanity's true potential, but to John it means uncovering the reality of his past and the secret of his identity.
The bulk of the viewer's time is spent accompanying John on his journey of self-discovery and sometimes tagging along with Kwan Ha, an orphaned colony girl on a quest to avenge her murdered father. The latter plotline is, regrettably, an excruciating slog despite the best efforts of Yerin Ha and perennial top-tier Bad Guy character actor Burn Gorman. Halo wisely abandons the now formulaic "grizzled older warrior/precocious young protege" motif while retaining some of its components.
John's journey is unfortunately only slightly more compelling as he cultivates a complicated relationship with Makee, a human long under the stewardship of the Covenant and the other half of the "kindred spirits" dynamic that forms the foundation of the show's primary conflict. Much was made of the decision to have Master Chief remove his helmet (a development handled more gracefully in The Mandalorian, admittedly) and a sex scene with the aforementioned Makee, but these are easy to overlook if you care little for what Halo is "supposed" to be and buy into what the showrunners are selling.
Despite making the games' actual lore take a backseat to an original story, Halo does show the Covenant and UNSC in action, albeit not enough for my liking. The very first episode begins with a gnarly Covenant assault on a human colony, and episode five features the most impressive battle scene of the show by far. The climax of the finale, however, is a display of breathtakingly mediocre animation, in an unfortunate contrast with one of the show's strengths, its practical effects. Many of Halo's iconic weapons like the Covenant Needler, UNSC Spartan armor, and vehicles such as the Warthog are showcased in satisfying detail, and it is a shame the show's CGI pales in comparison.
Fervent and loyal fans of the games will not welcome the fundamental changes featured in the show, but for more casual sci-fi fans there are qualities and concepts that make it an entertaining watch with a promising future. The season as a whole is a mixed bag of decent acting performances, occasional riveting action, halting pacing, and inconsistent visual effects. The decision to divest from the tried and true established lore is a risky one, and the show has its work cut out for it if it hopes to retain a fan base beyond its upcoming second season. You get to see Pable Schreiber's booty relatively early in the season though, so maybe worth sticking with it until then?
Joey's grade: C-