New HBO Show 'Chernobyl' Makes 'Game of Thrones' Look Like a Comedy

A new HBO miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster is gripping and most definitely not for the fainthearted

Adam Nagaitis in HBO's "Chernobyl."
HBO

It is hard to know what will last longer: The radiation surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, or people’s fascination with the world’s worst-ever nuclear disaster. (In case you’re wondering, scientists estimate it will be at least 20,000 years before the area around the now-encased reactor is safe once more for human habitation.)

Who hasn’t heard of the place? It has inspired several computer games (the shoot-’em-up horror-survival game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” even imagined a second nuclear explosion in the exclusion zone around the power plant, which is situated on what is now the Ukraine-Belarus border); some bloody awful jokes about Ukrainian underpants; several nonfiction books, including the recent best seller by Adam Higginbotham, “Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster,” which definitely offers an interesting use of the word “greatest”; and a trashy 2012 horror movie, “Chernobyl Diaries,” set in the ghost town of Pripyat just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the nuclear plant – a city that nearly 50,000 people were forced to abandon the day after the disaster, yet which now attracts some 60,000 visitors annually on official city tours. (We can only hope their official slogan is “We put the ‘grim’ in pilgrimage.”) In fact, you could say an industry has, well, mushroomed out of those tragic events at the woefully underprepared power plant in the wee hours of April 26, 1986.

You’d think the Russian fallout from the 2016 U.S. presidential election would be enough for most people, but it would seem not. Now – some 13 years after a one-off BBC drama, “Surviving Disaster,” examined the accident and its aftermath through the eyes of the scientist charged with investigating it – comes an exhaustive five-part HBO-Sky Atlantic miniseries that is gripping, powerful and most definitely not for the fainthearted.

Of course, no one should go into a show about a nuclear disaster expecting song-and-dance routines (do you know how hard it is to write a lyric about caesium-137 and not rhyme it with “Heaven”?). But when I say “Chernobyl” is bleak, I mean bleak. Imagine Ingmar Bergman directing a Nick Cave music video, and you’re headed in the right direction.

Compelling drama

I’ll admit there were times when I pined for a slightly more entertaining nuclear apocalypse – like the classic 1979 Hollywood thriller “The China Syndrome” with Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, which was a work of fiction but spookily predicted the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster that occurred just two weeks after the film was released in U.S. cinemas. Ultimately, though, it’s the mix of horrific reality and the indoctrinated attitude of the Soviet authorities that makes “Chernobyl” such compelling drama.

“Possibly the most gruesome way to die is by severe radiation poisoning. The body melts from the inside out and the outside in.” This line is spoken not by any of the characters, but by Daniel Parker – the special effects expert charged with the unenviable task of recreating the nightmarish deaths people suffered after being exposed to tremendous amounts of radiation on that fateful April night.

The numbers about the disaster remain staggering: Some 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have been linked to the explosion; an area twice the size of London remains closed off to the public; and a fire burned at the site for 10 days straight. (As revealed in the eye-opening recent BBC documentary “Our World: In the Shadow of Chernobyl,” about 200 locals have returned to live in the exclusion zone over the intervening years and claim to have suffered no side effects, and the area has become the world’s most unlikely nature reserve.)

Yet none of this matters if the drama isn’t told effectively through the lives of those affected, and this is where “Chernobyl” shines – or should that be glows? The show isn’t so much interested in the lead-up to the accident but the fallout (that word again) afterward. This is a serious and somber show about disaster, not a disaster movie in which Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saves the day and the girl. (Sidenote: If you are as much a fan of disaster movies as I am, two of the best in recent years came from Norway – “The Wave” and its sequel, “The Quake.”)

Stellan Skarsgård and Jared Harris in "Chernobyl."
HBO / Cellcom TV

For a show based on real-life events, “Chernobyl” is actually surprisingly hard to talk about. It’s clearly not a spoiler to say that a nuclear reactor blows up, causing devastating consequences (apologies if you didn’t know that – in which case, I strongly advise you to steer clear of my “Titanic” review). But there are a lot of incidents in the show the average viewer may not know about, such as the fate of chief accident investigator Valery Legasov, which I won’t reveal – even though the series makes a very interesting creative choice by making that the opening scene.

I’d say that actor Jared Harris presents the character of Legasov as a lugubrious soul, but that pretty much goes for every character on display here. “There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after … even the good we did – madness!” he intones into a tape recorder in that opening scene, before we get perhaps the most precise screen caption ever: “Pripyat, Ukrainian SSR. Two years and one minute earlier,” where all hell is about to break loose at the nearby Vladimir I. Lenin Power Station.

I actually had to watch the first episode twice to try to separate my Vasilys from my Anatolys and my Viktors from my Nikolais, struggling to work out which mustachioed Soviet worker was inhaling a lungful of iodine-131 and which was speaking in front of an executive committee, hoping to convince them that the nuclear reactor’s core was no more.

It was worth the extra time, as the series then opens up to become an examination of Soviet life at the end of the communist era and a nuanced exploration of what happens when “The People” are viewed as more important than individual members of the public.

The show wisely lets the largely British cast (with a sprinkling of Swedes such as Stellan Skarsgård and David Dencik – the latter with the unenviable task of playing Mikhail Gorbachev) perform in their native accents, avoiding the nightmare scenario of English-speaking actors with dodgy Russian brogues – and yes, I’m looking at you, Tom Hardy in “Child 44.”

That seemingly simple choice helps us stay in this claustrophobic world where KGB operatives watch your every move and the party apparatus is of more importance than the safety apparatus at the ill-fated local fire brigade tasked with putting out a nuclear blaze without so much as a mask. (Here’s a handy tip, kids: If you see a piece of graphite glowing at a nuclear power plant, do not pick it up and admire it. This will not end well for your hand or life expectancy.)

Given the long gestation period of TV shows, it is presumably a “happy” coincidence that two separate television channels are offering such bleak visions this month: “Chernobyl” and the upcoming National Geographic thriller “The Hot Zone,” about the spread of the Ebola virus in the United States (more on that one at the end of the month). Things really are bad when we find shows about nuclear meltdowns and deadly viruses a welcome distraction from our current everyday lives.