June is the start of TV’s ‘off-peak’ season. The arrival of longer, warmer days sees falling TV audiences, with major shows’ current runs drawing to an end. In this less-crowded space, however, a sleeper hit can become the topic of water-cooler conversation. In 2010, it was season one of Sherlock. This year, it’s Chernobyl.
We were a little late starting this but we raced through it in less than a week and the more I reflect on it the more impressed I am by it.
The impossible challenge?
Taking on the task of dramatising the events of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a huge challenge. The subject matter requires a basic understanding of nuclear physics – and science is always hard to describe to a mass audience without being either boring or excessively dumbed down. As a retelling of an infamous historical event, we already know how the story ends. And because there is no happy ending, its tone is unremittingly depressing. It’s like watching Avengers: Infinity War without the prospect of Endgame to follow it.
Add to that the fact that this five-part miniseries is the product of an American screenwriter, Craig Mazin – whose previous CV highlights were The Hangover Parts 2 and 3 – and you’re looking at the near impossible task of delivering a drama that is authentic, accurate and compelling.
And yet Mazin has undoubtedly, unquestionably succeeded.
Why it works
Chernobyl works on so many levels.
First and foremost, it’s as accurate a retelling of events as is possible. Mazin researched the history of the disaster for 2½ years before starting the screenplay. He immersed himself in first-hand accounts. He included actual quotes within his script. And he resisted the temptation to embellish with too much dramatic licence.
There’s one particular moment in episode two that stood out for me. The scene unpacks the potential scale of devastation to a room full of the Soviet Union’s most powerful leaders – and, by extension, the audience. It’s not a showy moment – a dozen people sat around a table – but its stark, unflinching simplicity is undeniably powerful. As a viewer, I could feel the cold shiver that went through every person in that room. It’s an exquisite piece of TV that gut-punches you as much as the biggest Game of Thrones battle.
At the same time, the narrative successfully interweaves grand dramatic scale with intimate character stories. Following Lyudmilla Ignatenko from the loss of her fireman husband through to her baby’s death from radiation poisoning, we experience a first-person view of events. The immediate precautions taken in the former West Germany contrast with local schoolchildren going about their normal routines while being showered in radioactive ash. Civilian conscript Pavel and war veteran Bacho embark on the morbid task of killing and burying every animal in the exclusion zone.
Central to it all is the pairing of Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, the physicist and politician tasked with resolving the crisis on the ground. Both accepted their fates – lives shortened by radiation poisoning – stoically. And they willingly accept the battle against a Soviet political system which was slow to accept the truth and the need for action.
The end result is a fictional production that looks and feels like a documentary. Nuclear physicists have praised its faithful representation of the complex science. Local Russians have remarked on how authentic the dialogue feels, despite the actors using their own accents.
A story that resonates
For me, a big part of the reason Chernobyl resonates so much is that it hits multiple sweet spots. In terms of age, it has a particular appeal to anyone who remembers the mid-1980s. Like Craig Mazin, I was 15 when Chernobyl occurred. I knew only the barest details of what happened; watching the series has been a history lesson in itself. It has been like suddenly given the missing pieces of a half-complete jigsaw puzzle.
Some of the key themes have obvious parallels in today’s Western politics. The Soviet practice of hiding inconvenient truths and withholding vital information in the interest of protecting the myth of Soviet superiority has uncomfortable echoes of ‘fake news’ and the War on Truth. So too does the rejection and suppression of expert testimony that contradicts political agendas.
Chernobyl doesn’t pull its punches in its assessment of the Soviet culture of secrets and lies. But nor is it afraid to join the dots for those of us who can see the dangers of history repeating itself when it comes to politicians’ scant regard for, say, the impact of climate change.
Where is the modern-day equivalent of Legasov and Shcherbina? Who are the men and women who will sacrifice personal gain and reputation and lead the crusade? Food for thought.
Perhaps, more than anything, that is the true legacy of Chernobyl. A history lesson, yes. But also a warning about an uncertain environmental future.
The musical Hamilton reignited interest in the story of the American War of Independence and the nation’s Founding Fathers. Similarly, Chernobyl has driven many viewers to read more about the disaster and its environmental and social impact. It stands up as a work of genuine historical value.
Brilliantly written and acted, painstakingly authentic and interweaving grand tragedy with individual heroism, Chernobyl is a near perfect piece of television. Some shows are hyped to the rafters but fail to meet expectations. This exceeded them.
If you haven’t seen it yet, this is genuine must-see TV. Chernobyl is the best thing I’ve watched this year. Indeed, it’s the best series I’ve seen for several years.