Why Chernobyl might be HBO’s best drama series ever

On 26 April 1986, 3 kilometres outside the north Ukrainian City of Pripyat the number 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, resulting in the most catastrophic nuclear disaster we have seen in our lifetime.

Workers in full radiation suits spraying chemicals on the streets of Pripyat

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During the ordeal material over four hundred times more radioactive than that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was released. First responders were exposed to radiation levels equivalent to that of having hundreds of thousands of chest x-rays, all at once. The result is called ionising where electrons are removed from atoms in the body, breaking chemical bonds, damaging tissues and causing radiation sickness.

Being exposed to high levels of gamma radiation doesn’t turn you into The Hulk, rather it turns you into a puddle. Your DNA becomes unravelled, the tissue lining in your gastro intestinal tract breaks down, you become poisoned by your own gut bacteria and shit. Then, to top it off, you come good for a bit until your bone marrow stops producing the white cells you need to fight infection. Your body poisons itself and you die.

Lower levels of exposure result in higher risk of cancer. When doing research about Chernobyl you soon discover that a lot of statistics are sketchy to say the least, however it’s estimated that over 270,000 people in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus developed Thyroid cancer as a result of the radioactive particles of iodine 131 that was released into the atmosphere in the explosion.

So much like when Jaws came out in the late 70’s and stopped people from going into the water, since watching HBO’s dramatic retelling with their mini-series “Chernobyl” I am now completely terrified of my microwave.

To be fair, a lot of the horror in this series does’t necessarily lie with the nuclear disaster, but more with the web of lies, political arrogance and deceit that surrounded it. After watching Chernobyl you can’t help but wonder how many more lives may have been spared if those in positions of power pulled their heads in and did their jobs properly.

Who made it?

Written and produced by Craig Mazin—who’s most notable work to date has been authoring the Hangover sequels—it is a welcome surprise to see him have a crack at retelling the story of the worst nuclear disaster in history. He’s teamed up with Johan Renck, an incredibly well respected director—primarily of commercials and music videos—who no doubt will be even more in demand with this series under his belt.

Chernobyl indeed has received high praise from critics and viewers alike.

Who’s in it?

The cast are fantastic. Most notable include; Jessie Buckley as Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the pregnant wife of a firefighter; Paul Ritter as deputy chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, Emily Watson as nuclear scientist Ulana Khomyuk, a composite character that didn’t really exist but is brought into the mix to represent a bunch of scientists involved; Stellan Skarsgard plays Deputy Prime Minister Boris Scherbina and Jared Harris puts in a show stopping performance as Valery Legasov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Chief of the commission tasked with investigating the disaster.

There’s a lot that Chernobyl gets right. The attention to detail is incredibly meticulous from the way they have recreated everything like the interiors, to the carnage on the reactor roof top, to the costumes. I loved the look and feel of 80s Russia, especially the odd elaborate mosaic that stood out in the background of  an office or community swimming pool.

What’s wrong?

It’s important to note that this is dramatisation is not quite historically accurate. For example, Emily Watson’s character never actually existed and there’s also a lot of liberties taken to hammer home the horror, which contributes to the already varied and conflicting information that exists about the disaster.

The one thing I found particularly concerning about this was the portrayal of radiation as being contagious. Some scenes implied that to even come into contact with someone being treated for Acute Radiation Syndrome would result in the condition spreading, which is a little dramatic (it is a drama series after all). Radiation is internalised, so the only way to be exposed to it would be through things like blood or sweat or urine, or maybe to touch them when they’ve turned into a puddle. All the protective equipment being used in hospitals, like face masks and plastic shields are more about keeping the patient, who has no immune system, protected as opposed to saving the visitor from being turned into a radioactive ghoul.

To the creators credit, they do attempt to address some of the more sensationalised elements in a podcast where Craig Mazin himself breaks down the details of each episode and separates what he believes to be fact from fiction. It is the perfect companion to the series and highly recommended. 

Something audiences may be surprised by is the lack of Russian accents, they are nowhere to be heard. This actually made the characters seem more authentic. It’s a sensible choice to not force an accent onto non-Russian actors. You needn’t look any further than Red Sparrow as an example of accents gone bad, where characters become dehumanised and the story falls into parody.

What’s right?

Chernobyl really shines when it celebrates the heroism of men and women who stood in the face of the disaster and imminent death. They knew they were being exposed to incredibly concentrated doses of radiation but rolled up their sleeves to help anyway. Poeple like the firefighters who cleared the graphite off the roof because the radioactivity was frying the circuits of the robots and the miners who were required to dig a tunnel under the plant in an attempt to prevent uranium from leaking into the earth and poisoning the Black Sea. A lot of them would die from radiation poisoning and those left would suffer from cancer and other radiation induced diseases.

And so, while Chernobyl has those in positions of power very much on the shit list, it highlights the sense of honour and heroism that the western media and movies have often stripped from the Russian people, especially in movies from the 80s.

The verdict

I was 10 at the time Chernobyl occurred and, while I remember the stories very vividly, being a world away in Australia I never really had much comprehension of the full impact. This story certainly opened my eyes to that.

Chernobyl is not a documentary but through the companion podcast, it does invite the viewer to do some homework and dig deeper. It is easily one of the greatest TV dramas to come from HBO, with some of the best (dare I predict award winning?) performances, seen in many, many years.


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