HBO’s Chernobyl.

Chernobyl.

So, who wants to watch that new series on Chernobyl”, has to be pretty much the least enticing invitation imaginable. And yet, remarkably, HBO’s Chernobyl is comfortably the most exciting and the most brilliantly realised television series of the last four or five years. 

On one level, this oughtn’t to have been a surprise. We all know, at least in theory, that stories have nothing to do with their unadorned content, and depend entirely for their success on how they are told. The base material is irrelevant, what matters is how they are moulded into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police department of a nondescript, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug problem, and all the social issues that that creates? Or one about a bunch of privileged, white, mostly unpleasant marketing professionals, worried about what to spend their inflated salaries on, and who next to be unfaithful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending five, hour-long episodes watching the Soviet Union dealing poorly with the accident at one of its nuclear power plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an especially unappealing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Harris in Chernobyl.

The first mistake was to assume that I knew what the story had been. Like, I imagine, the vast majority of people, I actually knew next to nothing about what had actually happened at Chernobyl. And the first thing to say is that Chernobyl is meticulously, indeed exhaustively researched. Because of which, it constantly surprises. 

But even more impressive is how cinematic it is. There is a visual confidence and ambition to the directing that matches the tension and drama created by the script. So that episodes frequently nod to some of the genres that have most successfully populated our screens of late, like the zombie flick and horror in general. 

The eerily deserted streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eerily deserted city streets in episode 2, it’s rendered genuinely unnerving because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actually happened to the city of Pripyat. Its 50,000 inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in less than two days. And that creature in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invading extra terrestrial, it’s a human being in the later stages of extreme radiation sickness. 

There are a constant stream of wonderfully subtle, visual flourishes. As we leave on one of the myriad buses that are transporting the people of Pripyat to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s family pet is trying forlornly to join them and jump on board. 

That nondescript US city police department show.

As – the excellent – Jared Harris steps up to give his evidence at the trial that the series culminates with, the camera drunkenly tilts in slo mo. Partially, this is because his own radiation sickness has begun to kick in, and partially this is a reflection of his nervousness at the prospect of having to give evidence at a Soviet show trial. But they refrain from lingering on this tricksiness, and they quickly move on to the evidence itself. 

Nothing is overdone, and everything is exactly as it should be, which is what makes it such a triumph. And its director, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trailer for Chernobyl here

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HBO’s “Entourage” Ends on a High.

Entourage came to an end this year with its eighth and final series. The show revolves around up and coming Hollywood heart-throb Vince and his motley crew. There’s his best friend and manager E, his less successful actor brother Drama (played by Kevin Dillon, the less successful actor brother of Matt), his friend and gofer Turtle, and his agent Ari, and his wife, assistant and various love interests.

It’s Mark Wahlberg’s baby, and all of the characters are based unashamedly and far from loosely on his own real life cast of characters. It could easily have been insufferable, like watching one of those never-ending in-jokes that Sinatra and his rat pack used to make in Las Vegas and release as a movie. As with drugs, fun to do, oh so tedious to watch.

But thanks to its clever plotting, gentle banter and pitch-perfect performances it managed instead to be irrepressibly effervescent. Basically 30 Rock for boys, it was impossible not to be charmed. Or at least it was for its first few series’.

American TV series are written in the spirit of un-diluted capitalism. Once a show has got beyond its pilot and graduated into its first and second series, its numbers are relentlessly poured over. And the writers are called back in and told which of their storylines have and have not worked, and which elements of the show need to be dialed up and which ones quietly shelved.

So that frequently, later episodes in a series have been completely re-imagined in response to how the audience reacted to the different storylines in the first few episodes.

Unsurprisingly, this can sometimes be disastrous. Series 2 of Twin Peaks, and much of the latter half of Lost being obvious examples. But here it has to be admitted the system has undeniably worked.

What had been so endearing about the troupe initially was that, despite all the outward appearances of living the wet dream in an endless reel of uninhibited debauchery and unrestrained hedonism, all of their lives sucked. Every one of their relationships was a complete disaster.

But by the time we get to series 5, and especially 6 and 7, they have each become so garishly successful, that everything else about their lives has been drowned out. You’d have episodes in which one character gives the other a Maserati, and then later they race one another at the traffic lights.

Nobody minds seeing success, in fact we love watching pretty young things living the dream, so long as they are all profoundly and visibly unhappy. Thankfully, the homework was done, and the writers duly responded. And accordingly, come series 8 absolutely everything is going wrong for each and every one of them, and in every conceivable way. It’s great.

There’s talk at the moment of a movie follow-up. Let’s hope they hurry up and script it. They’re back on a roll.

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