Chernobyl: Horrifying, Masterly Television That Sears On To Your Brain

LONDON, England -- After three of its five episodes aired (four episodes have now aired), the miniseries Chernobyl found its way to the top of IMDB’s top 250 TV shows in history list.

This breathtaking series throws us right into the hellish chaos of the nuclear disaster – and its terrors are unflinching and unforgettable.

While the fan-voted chart might seem hyperbolic, given that the drama had only just crossed the halfway point, it is not undeserving of the honour.

Chernobyl is masterful television, as stunning as it is gripping, and it is relentless in its awful tension, refusing to let go even for a second.

That old ‘don’t spoil the ending’ joke about Titanic will inevitably be rebooted here, but it is confident enough to withstand any familiarity with the story.

From the opening moments, it conjured up panic and despair, beginning with the suicide of Jared Harris’ nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Harris must have “harrowing departure” on his CV), then throwing us right back into the hellish disorientation of the disaster itself, two years earlier.

I occasionally got lost in the mire of moustaches and Ronnie Corbett glasses – I started working out who people were by size of facial hair then level of incompetence – but the chaos seemed apt, and suited the inescapable sense of fear and confusion.

The decision to largely let actors use their own accents (a sign of its robustness, I think, not to defer to ropey faux-Russian affectations) has been surprisingly effective, and a help, initially, when it comes to sorting the characters.

Perm, hat or Irish, and we know who we’re dealing with.

Chernobyl is a disaster movie, a spy movie, a horror movie, a political thriller, and a human drama, and it spins each plate expertly.

The terror is unflinching and explicit, and its images of burned bodies collapsing into putrid decay are impossible to forget.

Yet it never feels shocking for the sake of it, only as haunting and horrible as its subject matter demands.

It manages to navigate the perilous path of having its characters speak in jargon, and largely refusing to explain it, while keeping viewers on top of what is happening.

Lesser shows fall back on clumsy exposition when they need to get an audience up to speed – Game of Thrones’ brothel-based sexposition was the stuff of legend – but here, it is woven in deftly when necessary.

At the point where a basic nuclear science primer starts to feel as if it might come in handy, Boris Shcherbina – a magnificent Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd – asks Legasov to explain how a nuclear reactor works.

Better still was the entirely coded conversation between Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk and her contact in Moscow, when a telephone call about a holiday in the country revealed the methods Legasov was using to try to put out the fire.

Often prestige television like this – expansive, expensive and ambitious – falls back on its wordiness, and Chernobyl is certainly well-written enough to justify that.

But it is as cinematic as it is reliant on dialogue, and it has the patience to let images do the heavy lifting when it is called for.

There were wordless scenes that made me catch my breath: a woman watching from her bicycle as busloads of people are shipped out of Pripyat at last; dogs chasing the departing vehicles; concrete being poured on to coffins; a dead deer prostrate before shivering trees.

“I prefer my opinion to yours,” preens one official, Garanin, despite the information being presented to him.

Facts are simply a matter of interpretation.

The obfuscation of truth is rampant and catastrophic.

We may not be living under the threat of the KGB, but the menace of constant surveillance does not feel far away.

The rejection of scientific knowledge, of experts, has terrible consequences.

It makes sense that modern audiences would take to Chernobyl; the contemporary resonance is plain. 

Chernobyl should not be as enjoyable as it is.

As a drama, it is unremittingly grim.

Even its hints of heroism – Legasov and Khomyuk defying party officials to try and stem the ramifications of the disaster – are tempered by them sending innocent men to die, and by the knowledge that Legasov’s card is very much marked.

But what a thrill it is to see it all playing out so brilliantly.

This is television that sears itself on to your brain.

In spite of the horrors, five episodes do not feel like nearly enough.

(The fifth and final episode will be aired in the US on HBO Monday, June 3 at 9:00PM and Tuesday, June 4 at 9:00PM on Sky Atlantic in the UK)

Source: The Guardian