The HBO series CHERNOBYL (2019) is without a doubt one of the most gripping and powerful dramas I’ve ever watched on TV. Intelligent, poignant, and horrific, this miniseries provides a fictionalized dramatization of an actual nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which came close to devastating an entire continent.
The show gets very quickly to the accident, which is horrifying itself because we, the viewers, know how dangerous radiation is and that there was a catastrophic explosion exposing the core to open air, while some of the characters don’t, either through ignorance or willfully ignoring the truth. The show frequently revisits this horror as we learn of the incompetence, lies, and brutality of the system that contributed to the accident while covering it up, and as various characters learn they have very little time left before they die a painful death.
As news of the disaster works its way up the Soviet bureaucracy, Valery Legasov (the fantastic Jared Harris giving the usual master class on acting), a nuclear scientist, is brought in to help Boris Scherbina (the always solid Stellan Skarsgård), a bureaucrat tasked with fixing the mess while safeguarding the interests of the State. At first, they hate each other, but a respect forms as Boris comes to understand the severity of the situation and that nothing else matters other than solving it.
The problem is eventually solved for the most part, but it’s only through the heroism of thousands of workers, soldiers, and scientists who flock to Chernobyl to help. These are truly shining moments among the horror and bureaucratic stupidity, where average people sacrifice themselves and/or tell the State to go to hell. Either because what needs doing is too important, or because they’ve been exposed to radiation and know they’re already dead. The show ends on this odd and poignant juxtaposition between disgust with human stupidity and hope in human heroism and compassion, combined with condemnation of the lies that go hand in hand with national exceptionalism.
Overall, CHERNOBYL is powerful, gripping, smart, interesting–a brilliant example of TV done right.