Why Chernobyl Might be the Greatest TV Show Ever Made

Mark Apostolou
May 29 · 6 min read

The term ‘Nuclear Meltdown’ might be the scariest ever constructed.

Sure the words individually ‘Nuclear’ and ‘Meltdown’ are worrying enough on their own. But together. Wow. Let’s just say that on hearing such a term uttered in your presence, in a real-time, very genuine context. Well. You may as well strap yourself in for a wild ride. One that ends in painful agonizing death.

So we come to Chernobyl. Again a frightening word of its own. And now the name of a television show that may well be a) the most depressing viewing experience you’ll ever undertake and b) could well be the greatest televisual feast ever consumed.

Sure. We’ve all heard of Chernobyl but now, with every episode that is aired, we learn that as a world community we didn’t really know the half of it, which is perhaps a testament to the level of effectiveness the Soviet era cover-up proved to be.

Now we get, via this incredibly well researched and produced HBO mini-series, to see for ourselves just what was happening in this corner of what is now (for the time being at least) northern Ukraine.

Before I continue I should warn of spoilers ahead. I realize this is a little akin to those who were issued spoiler warnings prior to watching Titanic, knowing of course full well that the ship went down. The spoilers here relate to the individuals involved and masterfully portrayed.

The first episode opens on Jared Harris’s lead character (Valery Legasov) sitting in a rather drab apartment. Worth noting that by the end of episode four his abode will look more like a palace, such are the living conditions of pretty much all those in Chernobyl.

It’s immediately clear that all is not well. The clue, I guess, is in the name of the TV show. But the pacing of his introduction, coupled with his pained expression, is in many ways a microcosm of the unparalleled grief and terror that will be visited on pretty much all those depicted.

Legasov is a man who is ready to make a stand, for what at this point, we can only guess. It turns out his defiant gesture, as well as recording his damning verdict on the way his motherland had conspired against its inhabitants, is to kill himself.

This in itself is as brave an opening as a TV show could attempt. To basically ‘give the game away’ within the first 3 minutes of an opening episode is in many ways a ‘no-no’ but it’s crystal clear that creator Craig Mazin is more than confident that his telling of the tale itself is so compelling in, and of, itself that this doesn’t seem like a risk.

Following his suicide, we are brought back by two years and a single minute prior to his death and introduced to the city of Pripyat, and two key characters. A fireman and his loving wife. Then right on queue, but cleverly set in the middle distance of their apartment’s main window, we see an explosion. No points for guessing the cause of it.

What follows, through episode one and all the way up to the gut-churning completion of episode four, is nothing short of mindblowing.

The production values on display are on such a scale that you, as a viewer, feel as if you are very much present. Not in the background. The way you are bombarded by emotive and evocative imagery is in many ways violent but this ‘violence’ never feels forced or manipulative.

As an example of this I’d cite the part of episode one where we see a group of residents, and their children, playing, obliviously as deadly ash rains upon them.

In some instances, and on paper, this could be considered a deliberate, uncouth act delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But when the scene plays out, even at this early stage in the proceedings, we let it wash over ourselves, leaving the viewer feeling nothing but extreme aching heartache for those portrayed.

Another aspect that could have been dealt with in a hamfisted fashion is the representation of the Soviet political establishment. It would have been and has been in the past, so easily written and produced in such a manner that would either appear like a parody or just plain alien to those of use from western democracies.

However, this to was painted with a brush that was equal parts biting and empathetic.

As well as adeptly dealing with the human trauma of what occurred in April 1986 the show does a fine job in acting as something of a historical drama. As well as being entertained, for want of a better expression, the viewer is being informed and educated.

And it’s in this second aspect, both within the construction of real-life figures and the events that transpired following the reactor explosion, that Mavin’s show really shines.

In every moment we are being told of the obstacles, and actions, that played out following the initial explosive act and the minutiae of knock-on effects/emotions that these led to.

Stellan Skarsgård pulls off the role of high-ranking party man Boris Shcherbina with precisely the right pitch. Emily Watson manages the part of a Russian scientist looking to document the disaster, regardless of the consequences, expertly with the right balance of determination and warmth.

Paul Ritter and Jesse Buckley, as the loving couple who are basically visited by a succession of horrors as the show wears on, are deftly portrayed in such a ‘real’ manner that every sinew of their suffering is transferred through the TV screen and directly into the psyche of the tearful watching audience.

There isn’t a dud performance. The whole production is filled with nuance. Everything is weighted perfectly. It’s understated when it feels necessary and bombastic and terrifying when the storyline compels it.

The marrying of the real and perceived (and by perceived I only mean that we can not, of course, be entirely sure of every single thing that occurred) is never more affecting than in episode four when a newly introduced character, drafted civilian Pavel (Barry Keoghan) who is immediately assigned to a military unit whose entire purpose is to walk the surrounding area shooting dead people’s pets.

Now again. The telling of this portion of the Chernobyl tale could have gone down one of two paths. A director could choose to shock and abuse the viewer with needless shots of apparently very much needed bloodshed or they could go a more PG-rated path, looking to pull too hard at our heartstrings.

Thankfully the direction of Johan Renck, who not only directed episodes of Breaking Bad and Walking Dead but was also, randomly, the lead singer of Swedish act Stakka Bo or ‘Here we go’ fame, is pitch perfect.

The result is phenomenal. The scenes played out by the trio of unfortunates who are sent out to kill off puppies are in many ways an allegory of the Chernobyl disaster itself.

The show does such a superb job of showing ordinary people doing extraordinary things in order to overcome an incident of epic proportions that there is perhaps a possibility of almost romanticizing the story of that adversity, but again this was an obstacle expertly swayed by all those involved in this magnificent production.

In many ways, it’s the perfect antidote in a post Game of Thrones world. A show about a reality that is so much more spectacular, and heartbreaking, than a fantasy could ever be.

A new online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling, STORIUS is a publication for everyone interested in how stories are created, discovered, distributed, and consumed.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Mark Apostolou

Written by

Screenwriter, editor, journalist. I put one word in front of another, for a living.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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