Chernobyl comes to HBO with relatively little fanfare. Early trailers had a slightly medicinal taste to them. They primarily focused on the boardroom ineptitude that failed to properly respond to one of the greatest man-made disasters in history. They don’t really prepare you for the intense, and intensely disturbing, emotional impact of the limited series itself. Directed by Johan Renck and written by Craig Mazin, Chernobyl quietly emerges as one of the very best limited series of the year. It completely blew me away (pun kind of intended).
The pilot episode walks viewers through the first seconds, minutes, and hours on the morning of April 26, 1986. It unfolds like a horror film. Some hide in a control center, unaware of the extent of the damage. Some scramble around dark corners, fleeing an unseen threat. Some claw at their faces, skin melting away due to radiation exposure. Woefully unprepared firemen arrive to address the deadly blaze. It’s all heart-stopping and terrifying because it’s all real. The pacing, the set design, and the cinematography all brilliantly work together to insert the viewer into the acts of that terrible day.
It’s a tough sit, but it’s worth every second.
Jared Harris (Mad Men), Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson (both appearing in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves) star as Russian bureaucrats working to contain the incident, despite very real danger to their own lives. Their performances feel incredibly lived-in and naturalistic, mercifully avoiding the bombast typical of such productions. Harris registers strongest, I suspect because his characterization of Valery Legasov embodies the very real internal struggle to respond to both state and to humanity.
The real stars of this production, though, are the brilliant technicians who labored to recreate these events and locations in such realistic detail. The set design is astounding, not only the recreation of the plant itself but also the nearby village of Pripyat. The cinematography captures the horrible beauty of a nuclear fire raging in the night. It also offers quiet moments of sheer terror as residents of nearby Pripyat swirl and play in the radiation fallout. Direction, writing, and technical Emmy nominations seem assured for this sterling production.
One note to viewers: if you’re an animal lover, then you may want to sit out episode four. “The Happiness of All Mankind” is an ironically titled and difficult to stomach, but likely very realistic, outing dedicated to those dealing with the problem of potentially radioactive pets.
It’s enough to make you hate humanity.
Chernobyl premieres on HBO Monday, May 6, at 9pm ET.