Chernobyl is a new miniseries created by Craig Mazin for HBO that stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson. It tells the story of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Meltdown in the then Soviet Union, one of the world’s worst man-made disasters in history, and the group of people who were tasked with investigating and neutralizing it. The show debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
The Chernobyl meltdown is perhaps one of the most fascinating events in modern world history, and it translates into an equally captivating viewing experience. On one hand, the event is one of the greatest tragedies ever known, but it also revealed a complex web of political corruption within the USSR and ultimately led to the downfall of said empire. Both aspects of the story are extremely cinematic, especially if you are interested in Cold War politics.
One of the reasons why this miniseries works so well is its unique structure. The first episode deals with the meltdown as it happens and the immediate aftermath. This is one of the most intense and thrilling hours of television you will ever see. The next three episodes explore the aftermath of the incident and the people who helped to resolve it and are truly heartbreaking. The final episode brings it all together with a chronicle of the events that led up to the meltdown in a way that is exciting and suspenseful.
As a direct result of this structure, the miniseries is endlessly intriguing and entertaining. It plays out like a mystery, as you, along with the characters, are trying to figure out what happened and how it can be resolved. Even if you have familiarity with some of the events as they transpired, you will be drawn into the world. The only thing that does require some suspension of disbelief is that a majority of the dialogue is in English with little to no accent, but even this is forgivable after a time.
The character development in the series is excellent, especially in the middle three episodes in which a majority of the arcs occur. The main characters are Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, a scientist and politician who were on the committee that tried to mitigate the damage caused by the meltdown. Both of their arcs are phenomenal, brilliantly capturing the political implications of the story. The human implications are captured by some supporting characters, including Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character) and Lyudmilla Ignatenko (a wife of one of the firefighters), who have smaller, but impactful parts.
This miniseries has some of the best acting you will see all year. At this point, Jared Harris should just be given the Emmy now. His performance is great, with a ton of emotional nuance and so much power. In an era when political scandals are so common, his performance really captures the fears we all have. Skarsgård is superb too, particularly in later episodes in which he has multiple big and impactful moments in which his delivery is impeccable. Jessie Buckley and Barry Keoghan have supporting turns that are quite small, but effective and necessary nonetheless.
On a technical level, this series is extremely impressive. You can see the amount of money that was put into this show, as the scale of the production is awe-inspiring. It is wonderful that the stigma of television is finally being lifted, and it is series like this that make the difference, as the combination of the big-budget look and close and personal tone will allow the series to connect with wider audiences. The level of detail that was put into capturing the period in which the series is set is truly amazing. Additionally, the way in which suspense is built, particularly during the meltdown and clean-up scenes, is marvelous.
Overall, Chernobyl is one of the most interesting and well-made miniseries to come out in a long time. It will be hard to beat this show’s production values, suspense, and acting come awards season, so make sure to check it out.
Chernobyl debuts on HBO on May 6 at 9pm with an additional episode on subsequent Mondays until the finale. (All five episodes were reviewed.)