TV Review: Chernobyl

In its exploration of the human stories around the nuclear accident, Craig Mazin’s mini-series Chernobyl is simply superb

“You are dealing with something that has never happened on the planet before”

Yeesh! TV dramas surely don’t have the right to be as good as Chernobyl, particularly when they’re ostensibly about such grimly horrific a topic as this,  But as creator, writer, and executive producer Craig Mazin has adroitly identified, the 1986 nuclear disaster – and the human impact it had on those closest to it – is relatively under-explored, in mainstream Western culture at least. 

Chernobyl seeks to explain what happened on that fateful day, and its terrible aftermath, on two distinct levels. Focusing in on the microlevel, we follow stories such as those of the power station workers, the first responders, the people who watched the fire burn up close. But it also takes a strategic look at the Soviet system at large, tracing the institutional problems that allowed it to happen.

The result is something deeply, grimly compelling, as people struggle to comprehend what has happened, what that means for them and furthermore, how to deal with a government system intent on denying and obfuscating the truth, even as radioactive clouds reach out way past the Iron Curtain. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård are heartbreakingly good as Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina, respectively the scientist and politician placed in charge of the ‘clean-up’. Emily Watson also shines as one of the few fictional characters, her nuclear physicistUlana Khomyuk being a composite of the many scientists who investigated the accident.

Mazin’s writing cleverly guides us through the basics of nuclear fission without ever dumbing down for its audience, a skill that many a TV show fails at. And director Johan Renck shows a masterly display of cinematic imagery, composing haunting tableaux with seeming ease. If there’s any criticism to be levelled at Chernobyl, it is perhaps in the way that Mazin has doubled down so hard on the historical accuracy angle, Whilst there is undoubtedly a wealth of heavily researched good intent underscoring his work, it can’t help but be refracted through a Western lens.

And dramatic license aside, the push for a neatness in a pursuit for the truth narrative further plays into this. Again this wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the creator wasn’t so adamant that ‘this is what happened’. But that minor cavil aside, Chernobyl is superlative work. 

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