Chernobyl: TV’s Newest Masterpiece

Fresh from the disappointment of ‘Game of Thrones’, a new HBO show emerged. And I simply wasn’t ready for it…

In April 1986, a seemingly routine safety test resulted in the explosion of an RBMK nuclear power reactor in northern Ukraine. HBO’s new five-part miniseries tells the story of this explosion at the nuclear power plant of the same name.

‘Chernobyl’ is superb in every way. It’s difficult to compare this to other recent TV greats (such as ‘The Wire’, ‘The Sopranos’, pre-season 7 ‘Game of Thrones’) due to the limited five episode run-time, but this really is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever watched.

The set designs and locations used, coupled with the cinematography and outstanding dialogue, helps to make ‘Chernobyl’ an incredibly captivating experience. My favourite exchange comes in Episode. 2, upon the revealing of the true danger and scale of the situation: “It’s not 3 roentgen, it’s 15000.” “What does that number mean?” “It means the core is open. It means the fire we’re watching with our own eyes is giving off nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima. That’s every single hour. Hour after hour.” This dialogue is just one of many examples of its chilling nature.

The story’s focus is largely placed on three characters in particular. These being Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson). All three are crucial to the story and are brilliantly written/acted.

Image result for chernobyl tv show
Copyright IndieWire

Legasov is a nervous, bumbling scientist whose conscience and moral compass is slowly sapped as he witnesses the horrors caused by Chernobyl. Khomyuk helps to show the contrast between scientists who know what is the best course of action using science (like the need to immediately evacuate the city of Pripyat) and those with political power in the Soviet Union who may well know best, but have to act as if nothing is truly wrong, as admitting something is wrong means admitting a mistake was made in the first place (which serves as a fascinating microcosm of the Soviet Union as a whole). My favourite character might be Shcherbina – an underling of Mikhail Gorbachev, who is originally given the task of investigating what exactly is going on at Chernobyl. He could have easily been portrayed as a one dimensional bureaucrat but is far more interesting and complex than that, often struggling with the numerous moral and political decisions which occur as a result of the disaster.  

I love the choice to never show anything from outside of the Soviet Union, be it media or public reaction to the events at Chernobyl. This seems very appropriate, considering just how much the Soviet Union attempted to close itself off from and ignore the rest of the world. I can imagine a lesser show attempting to show the global reaction to the nuclear disaster and I just don’t think it’d work anywhere near as well. Seeing the story unfold from a purely Eastern perspective helps to amplify the grim Soviet atmosphere and makes ‘Chernobyl’ that much more involving – to a point where the show often feels like a highlight reel of footage taken straight from 1986.

Image result for chernobyl tv show gorbachev
Copyright Sputnik International

‘Chernobyl’ focuses on the disaster from as many different perspectives as possible, be it enlisted men killing animals who may be infected with radiation, or the desperation of Ukrainian citizens to know what is happening. It focuses on these issues through the eyes of individuals, humanising every aspect of the disaster without ever becoming bogged down in unnecessary melodrama.

If you haven’t already seen it, then I couldn’t recommend checking about ‘Chernobyl’ enough. Watch the whole thing in one go if you have five hours going spare. ‘Chernobyl’ is meticulous with its portrayal of what really happened without ever seeming factual for the sake of being factual, it delves deep into nuclear science without being boring and is gut-wrenchingly poignant without coming across as ham-fisted or cheesy.

Featured Image Copyright Variety

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