TV Review | Chernobyl
Show summary: In April 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics becomes one of the world's worst man-made catastrophes. (IMDb)
Much like another HBO series, it took some pestering from friends to finally get around to watching Chernobyl. Unfortunately, by the time I'd decided to watch it, four of the five episodes had been broadcast, so I waited for the fifth to go out and then binged the lot. Holy crap am I glad I decided to watch this - I can't believe I almost missed out on one of the greatest TV shows ever made.
And that's not really hyperbole either - this is absolutely top-tier stuff from start to finish and I'll freely admit here and now at the start of this review that this is going to be one long post of non-stop praise. Yet another HBO show, Band of Brothers, is my favourite series of all time and Chernobyl pushes it all the way, with both drawing from being based on real events.
I was too young to really take in what happened at Chernobyl when the disaster occurred in 1986, with only the very haziest memories of seeing it talked about on TV news. By the time I was old enough to actually take in what was happening in the world around me, Chernobyl was a distant memory - this show brought those event screaming into my consciousness.
First off, it looks amazing. This is one of those shows where there's actually a lot more VFX work on-screen than you'd think, but it's practically unnoticeable. From the perfectly-chosen locations (thanks in part to the Soviet use of repeated Brutalist design) to the costumes and hair, in addition to the technology, you are fully transported back to the time of these events.
And nothing ever sticks out, even when we get to see the shocking outcome of being exposed to ludicrously high levels of radiation - it all feels real. It helps that the people behind the show clearly did their homework, with plenty of former Soviet citizens speaking out about how authentic the massive majority of what we see is in comparison to how they actually used to live.
Even the stranger sights, like seeing the reactor rods bouncing up and down like a child's game, or how much like some kind of eldritch abomination they resemble after the reactor explodes, feel as genuine as seeing someone in a period-accurate suit and tie. The fact that this is all presented in a very matter-of-fact manner helps enormously.
The sound design only helps the visuals, especially near the start when you see the destroyed reactor almost screaming it's radiation into the atmosphere. But it doesn't stop there, with the score serving perfectly to add to the oppressive, bleak atmosphere to perfectly complement what we're seeing (seriously, listen to it if you get the chance - it's award-worthy stuff).
This all works especially well because of how Chernobyl is structured, starting with the reactor explosion and proceeding from there, only flashing back to show the lead-up to the disaster in the final episode - if you want the full story and understand exactly how and why everything happened, it's a requirement to watch from start to finish, and one that is well worth your time.
Chernobyl isn't just restricted to the immediate time-frame of the accident either, with the show actually starting years past the explosion with one of the main characters looking back on what happened, perfectly setting the mood for what's to come. There are also some scenes set months after the disaster, including some that may be too much for animal-lovers.
In fact, those very scenes drew complaints about how 'sadistic' they were, despite the fact that they actually happened. This perfectly fits Chernobyl, as the massive majority of what is shown did actually happen. Time frames are compressed to speed things along (such as how quickly the radiation affected those exposed to it) rather than keep us waiting.
It's not a hundred percent accurate, but having now read up a lot more on what did actually happen, it's startling how much the details were true to life even if the time scales were played with. There are scenes where characters interact when they didn't in real life, or are even created wholesale for the show - such as the KGB chief Charkov - but they never detract from the experience.
These creative choices were made so that the narrative could continue as smoothly as possible, which only makes sense considering that this is a docu-drama, and not a documentary. There's no intention of remaining absolutely, perfectly true to life because it would make for a terrible TV show - instead these decision allow the show to remain focused on the story it wants to tell.
Much like Charkov, Emily Watson's Ulana Khomyuk is a completely fictional character, despite how central she appears to proceedings. There will be some who will complain about this, but as the 'what happened next' cards explain at the end of the final episode, she represents a distillation of the many, many scientists who helped deal with the crisis.
After all, if you were in charge of this show, would you rather have dozens upon dozens of characters all feeding scraps of information to Jared Harris' Legasov and hoping the audience can remember them all - and hope people aren't bored with him spending a looooot of time on the phone speaking to them all - or a single character and just the one combination of face and name, while delivering the exact same volume of information?
Speaking of Harris and his portrayal of Valery Legasov, his 'double act' with Stellan Skarsgard's Boris Shcherbina is arguably the true highlight of Chernobyl. You have actors here, both in top form and with incredible chemistry, utterly inhabiting their characters and quite possibly doing far more to sell you on how disastrous everything than the fire, smoke and radiation poisoning.
Shcherbina has a greater degree of development over the course of the series, even if the character would've disagreed, but credit really should go to Harris for just how well he plays the expert not being (fully) listened to by those in power. Highly intelligent, but naive; determined yet almost powerless - it's a damn hard line to walk, but Harris does so in incredible fashion.
Skarsgard is great as Shcherbina too, going from almost a 'yes man' for the ruling Communist Party to accepting that he needs to actually listen to those who know better than him if he wants things to work. Shcherbina is a force of nature throughout, even in quieter scenes, and Harris' Legasov rightly praises him as the key man in 'fixing' the problem of Chernobyl.
Their characters and how they are treated are almost a perfect fit for the world of today as well, much like Chernobyl itself. Here is a large disaster, with potentially even deadlier consequences down the road and the experts who can help fix it are barely being listened to by those with the power to make it actually happen - swap Chernobyl for climate change and you have the live, 2019 version of this show playing out around the world right now.
I'm not going to go on some political rant about how governments should be listening to scientists and other experts (although they fucking should), but it's shocking at times how much people in Chernobyl seem to be like the people in power today - always looking to pass the buck and blame someone else rather than accepting that they are part of the problem and looking to put things right.
Just to prove how much some people want to twist things to position themselves better, the number of people who are (deliberately?) missing the point is astounding. Is Chernobyl anti-nuclear power? No. Is it anti-socialism? No - communism is different to socialism, just so you know. Is it even about the disaster at Chernobyl? Not really, although also rather obviously yes too.
Chernobyl is about the people it affected, directly and indirectly, their responses to what happened and how they dealt with it. This isn't to say the events are unimportant after all; Chernobyl may not be anti-nuclear power, but it certainly highlights how dangerous it could be if not used properly. But we spend so much time with the characters precisely because it's about them.
We have plenty of Legasovs around the world right now, but what the planet could really do with are more Boris Shcherbinas.
I know that a lot of what I've talked about might not seem that interesting and maybe you'd prefer watching a documentary or reading up on the disaster instead, but - by making it a TV drama - it allows your imagination to make things a little more interesting than it might otherwise sound. There are a lot of people who have called Chernobyl terrifying, and they're not wrong.
There is more dread and fear in a single episode of this show than in most horror movies or thrillers. There are moments when this will feel more like a horror film involving an invisible monster that burns and infects its victims, leaving them to die in agony. It's not just horror, Chernobyl often feels like full-blown sci-fi horror at points, despite its 1986 setting.
Or, to go one step beyond even that, the reactor and radiation feel akin to cosmic horror, much like something you'd read in a HP Lovecraft story. That sense is rammed home when we see the twisted and mangled reactor, burning and screaming like some utterly inhuman behemoth trying to enter our world while decaying and destroying all life around it - utterly horrifying and freakish, yet undeniably an arresting spectacle.
Chernobyl is one of the finest TV shows I've ever had the privilege to watch and it immediately ranks as some of the greatest television ever made. There is not single here that I feel could be improved upon, where even a higher degree of accuracy could detract from the drama and make it all feel lesser than it is. Do yourself a favour, sit down and watch this as soon as you can.
Why a 10/10? This is going to be a short one, because I don't really know what I could possibly add to the above. There isn't a single part of Chernobyl that is anything less than utterly outstanding and one of the finest examples of how incredible a TV show can be when the proper care and attention is given the to the events that we see.
Director Johan Renck and writer Craig Mazin were given incredible creative freedom to tell the story that they wanted to tell in the manner they wanted to tell it and that personal passion and dedication to this material is evident from the first second to the very last. Both of these men should be proud of the incredible achievement they have accomplished here.