What could scream “entertainment!” more than the worst nuclear disaster in history?

Happy Soviet Funtime Hour!

What’s The Show? Chernobyl

What’s It All About, JG? Whacky, zany adventures down at the old мама и папа power plant! What crazy shenanigans with the crew get up to this week, as they try to prove the superiority of Soviet technology? Uh-oh, that’s a lot of flashing lights, Anatolay! What you done this time?! Alternatively, one of the most bleak, powerful and moving dramas ever put together, as the HBO/Sky miniseries explores exactly what happed before, during and after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl power plant in 1986.

We follow a succession of characters, led by Jarred Harris’s Valery Legasov, drafted in to help clean up the mess, and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), appointed by Gorbachev from the Council Of Ministers to find out what’s actually going on as if things are as bad as Legasov thinks. Over five punishingly detailed and at times excruciatingly difficult-to-watch episodes we see the accident, the consequences and the politics. It’s all blended together until, in the final episode, the cause is laid out in forensic detail and the chain of events laid bare.

Why Did You Give It A Go? I didn’t, initially. The series was released in 2019 and I avoided it a bit despite its stellar reputation because, well, Chernobyl was bad enough the first time round and I have vivid childhood memories of watching the news and increasingly large and alarming plumes of radioactive pollution ballooning over Europe. But, having been shamelessly bullied strongly persuaded by someone whose opinion I deeply respect and admire I finally caved in and watched it.

Is It Any Good? It’s one of the single best pieces of television drama I’ve ever seen. It’s absolutely breathtakingly good, and I now regret having waited so long to get round to seeing the bloody thing. The most obvious thing to talk about first is the cast, because they are utterly faultless, from the big-ticket names like a never-better Jared Harris (quite something, that) to tiny little bit-parts, like the characters hanging out on the Bridge Of Death, watching the air glow after the explosion and describing it as “beautiful”. The actual event may be a bit of an urban myth but the power of it remains, people unable to comprehend what has happend nor what it will ultimately cost them. Literally everyone here is turning in career-best performances and it adds so much to already-powerful material.

Worthy of special praise is the late and much-missed Paul Ritter as the unspeakably arrogant deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, whose decisions pretty much led to the disaster (though there’s plenty of blame to go round). It’s a stunning performance, both in the control room on the night of the accident, unable to accept what was going on around him, and during his trial where he’s still full of anger and bile. Emily Watson, too, deserves immense credit as Ulana Khomyuk, pretty much the only character not based on a real person – the character is described as a “composite” of people by the production – and she is able to bring immense warmth, compassion and a steely determination to the role that’s a joy to watch.

But, really, it’s the two-hander between Skarsgård and Harris that’s the core of the series, and their acerbic relationship that eventually softens into respect but never quite tips over into friendship, is the emotional fulcrum of the show. Needless to say, both are faultless beyond words, and Skarsgård’s Boris – the only good man in a bad batch – is an astoundingly compelling character, while Jared Harris’s slightly-underplayed Legasov is a riveting, still presence at the heart of the catastrophe. Both deserve pretty much every award there is.

How Many Epsiodes Did You Watch? All of them, though this isn’t a show to binge. It’s worth leaving space between watching the episodes to really let them sink in, before returning and moving on.

Would You Recommend It? Unhesitatingly. The attention to detail, from the right packet of Soviet cigarettes to filming taking place at “Chernobyl’s sister” (the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania) for maximum authenticity really makes this an acutely and accurately observed show, and it all leans in to the veracity of the production. It’s a hugely convicing setting and that really draws the viewer into the drama to invoke an entire world, whether it’s the blandly tasteless Soviet hotel designs or the absurdly grandiloquent courtroom chairs the judges sit in. Seeing the accurately-portrayed victims of radiation poisoning in a Moscow hospital is mercilessly uncompromising and incredibly difficult to watch, yet it’s never gratuitous – it simply shows the consequences of the accident and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusion by laying out the horror.

But beyond the accuracy the drama is beyond riveting in places – the conclusion to episode two, especially, is an absolute master class of tension-building. Four technicians sent into Chernobyl’s fatally contaminated duct-works which have been flooded with water, to prevent a further explosion… the dosimeters scream louder and louder as the radiation gets higher and higher… the lamps begin failing one by one leaving the workers in pitch darkness with nothing but the shrieking of the radiation detectors… then the credits roll. It’s unbelievably audacious and a pitch-perfect cliff-hanger. The resolution at the start of episode three is fractionally underwhelming – hand-pumped lamps! – but the power in those last few minutes of episode two show off everything that’s so great about this show.

There are, it must also be acknowledged, some questions about historical accuracy – not least from people who were actually there at the time – and the tendency of the show to turn everyone into a bit of a hero or villain, but the power of the piece remains, despite those questions. And the most powerful scene of all isn’t one of drama in the ductwork or scenes of evacuation – it is Legasov, in the final episode, laying out piece by damning piece the mistakes that led to the disaster. These scenes derive their power from simplicity, not from melodrama. Fact by fact, mistake by mistake, we are led through the chain of events that caused the cataclysm, with Harris’s quiet yet rivetingly-certain Legasov laying out painful but searingly undeniable truths. It’s a perfect demonstration of dramatic power being derived from stillness, and it’s Harris’s best moment in the role – or in any role. Harris is a phenominally gifted actor but here, in these scenes, he bests even his own impeccably high standards to produce one of the most compelling television performances ever captured.

Chernobyl is a difficult, challenging but ultimately exceedingly rewarding watch and all the better for how tough it is, and the brutal, uncompromising portrayal of human failings before, during and – crucially – after the event marks it out as one of the best pieces of television drama ever put together. It’s genius.

Scores On The Doors? 9.75 / 10 and the quarter mark off is only because the show isn’t the best at resolving its cliff-hangers. In all other respects, this is pretty much faultless.

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