It wasn’t an easy sell to watch a drama about the Chernobyl disaster, I didn’t know much about the incident before watching, but the word ‘disaster’ is rarely indicative of light and positive easy watching. However there’s also been a huge amount of praise for the show and it swept best series, director and writing Emmys in the limited series categories, so I took a deep breath and settled in.
First up, the praise was right. This is truly superb television. I cannot imagine the amount of material that the writers had to work from, and they’ve boiled it down to a tight 5 episodes, each just a bit over an hour. They’ve clearly had to simplify, amalgamate, and I’m sure occasionally outright make stuff up, but the result is a compelling narrative, just enough technical information and exposition, but also plenty of breathing space for the characters to tell representative stories of all the different types of people involved. We come to understand what happened, and all the reasons why it happened, the complex collection of cultural, technical and personal issues that coalesced to cause the disaster and shape the response to it. You’ll come out knowing more about nuclear power, the Soviet Union and what villains and heroes look like.
The speed of the timeline is also very carefully paced, early episodes playing out over the space of just a few hours, while later ones step through months. The series starts at the very moment of the explosion and for the most part the events are told completely linearly, from there, it’s only the final episode that includes flashbacks to explain what happened. There must have been dozens of approaches the writers could have taken with interweaving timelines, or starting earlier to build the tension, but this presentation worked incredibly well. It meant we could follow along with the characters as we never knew more than them (except for whatever knowledge we went in with). At each point we were focused on exactly what the characters were – putting out a fire, stopping the next problem, working out what happened. The characters and audience are united in living in the moment, the immediate decisions that must be made with only the knowledge available at that instant. It’s incredibly gripping and that tension and pace would have been lost if there were jumping timelines to keep track of. When they eventually start using them in the final episode it is an equally good choice, taking us back before the start of the first episode to see what happened, now that we have the breath to reflect.
The cast is absolutely jam packed with acting talent and one of the things that made me want to watch were the headliners of Jared Harris, Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, all actors that I always really enjoy watching and they are all at the top of their games here. The wider cast are all outstanding, many with minimal screentime to convey what it would feel like to be in the centre of something completely unimaginable. The only thing I wasn’t entirely certain about were the accents, everyone staying with their usual accent rather than attempting a Russian accent which was easier to connect with, but it then seemed a bit weird that all the signs and background writing were in Russian.
I was truly impressed with this series. It didn’t help my anxiety much as I was completely engrossed in it, wondering what I would pack if given only a few minutes to evacuate my home, what I would do if I knew something was seriously wrong but everyone was saying it was fine, how I would decide on the horrible choices people had to make. It’s utterly horrible and completely compelling. You may not want to watch it, but you really should.