I’m always a bit apprehensive when I get the idea to write a piece on another TV series. The website is called FilmGamer after all. After True Detective, The Night Of, The Leftovers, Game of Thrones, and Sharp Objects, this is my sixth HBO series and eighth tv show covered on this channel so I may soon alter my website byline. Why would I cover a miniseries like Chernobyl that arrived with no fanfare? Well if you’re reading this article it’s likely you’ve already seen the show or know how good it is. As far as miniseries go it is one of the best. I liked it better than Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it is better than Sharp Objects, roughly on or just under par with The Night Of. It isn’t as sharply or intensely written as Generation Kill, but it doesn’t need to be with brilliant presentation, pacing, understated character work, and atmosphere (I know). I’m giving it my highest rating right off the bat so that I can focus on what makes the show great. Chernobyl gets a rare, deserved 5/5.
What makes Chernobyl so compelling is the way it handles its subject matter. Refreshingly, it is only 5 episodes long. The show never dedicates more time than it needs to on any singular aspect of the disaster. The first episode is dedicated to the disaster itself, the second episode the immediate fallout, the third and fourth episodes the long term cleanup and effects of radiation poisoning, and the fifth episode is a courtroom drama that effectively summarizes the whole matter. At the centre of it all is Valery Legasov played by Jared Harris in an understated performance who acts as the moral centre. He is phoned up by bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina who along with many of the villains in this show are self-concerned party men that dismiss the threat level of the event. All of the dramatic decisions the show makes are the right ones. Would the real-life Valery really be so naive to his country and Communist party’s dealings? Would he really so baldly and succinctly testify in Soviet court? Would he or someone else in the room always know what the hell is going on? No, but every time the show treads this ground it is a benefit to the audience as it ropes us along to create a dramatically satisfying scene. The show does a great job of spinning great character work out of historical fiction. It makes the smart decision to have everyone perform in their native accents and the only glaring problem is David Dencik as Gorbachev who represents the face of the Soviet Union yet sounds the least Soviet of them all.
The most glaring simplification is the scene of plant workers and their executive board meeting in a fallout shelter on the morning of the accident. They are all deciding what to do when an old man, played by Peter Vaughan (Game of Thrones’ Aemon Targaryen, so you know he’s important) stands up out of nowhere and tells all the bad guys that they are not going react significantly to this situation because our country is Communist and Communists keep their mind on their own work. He then promptly disappears and aside from a brief cameo is never seen again. How the majority of characters seemingly agree to this while few others staunchly oppose shows the battle lines the show draws between men and other men which eventually shifts into men versus nature and then men versus human nature. I admire the goals of a show that never loses sight of the audience’s perspective. Chernobyl is always engaging, never opaque and never feels like a history lesson and I like that. This is the highest example of television working as entertainment while it informs, while taking the best examples from film; the quality and aesthetic, as well as one writer and director throughout. Many people are surprised a writer whose credits include poorly reviewed studio comedies like The Hangover and Scary Movie sequels could write something like this. I’m not. For one I think Scary Movie 3 is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen and how they tie The Ring plot and the Signs plot together in that film is brilliant. Two, HBO has the best crews in the world that if Game of Thrones has shown can easily mask a perfunctory adaptation. It’s not exactly like this writer had a lack of experience.
The music extends the trend started by Johann Johansson in Sicario (and his abandoned work in Blade Runner 2049) of using sound design as music. Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir is an associated act of the late Johansson and the music perfectly sets the chilling and toxic atmosphere, it never rises above the material nor sinks below it. It all fits together so well logistically following; the explosion, its fallout, the bureaucracy, the scientists, the volunteer plant workers, the miners, the hunters, and finally those responsible. I watched it all in one night even as I got tired around 3AM at the beginning of episode four. This is a show you won’t want to miss.