Archives for November 2019

HBO’s 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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