TV Series Review: Chernobyl

Yes, there’s still one episode to go in this, but I can’t wait to talk about it anymore, so I’m going to gush about it now. Chernobyl (a mini-series airing on HBO right now, with the final episode coming Monday) is absolutely riveting stuff. It’s a depiction of the events, response, and aftermath to the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. Is it 100% historically accurate? No. But through its depictions of these events, it manages to bring the history alive in a way that’s definitely worth watching, if for nothing more than to get you thinking about what really happened and why.

Before watching this, my experience with Chernobyl was pretty much nothing but abstract. “It happened.” “There was a meltdown.” But what exactly “it” was and what a “meltdown” consists of was never really clear in my mind. So while some reviewers criticized the show for having some blatantly obvious set up scenes (such as where an official asks a nuclear scientist to “explain how reactors work”), I appreciated them taking the time to do that. It needed to be done, because the vast majority of the audience just doesn’t know enough about how nuclear energy works to properly understand what it is they’re watching.

The threat in Chernobyl is invisible. There’s a fire, yes. But there have been fires before, and humans generally know the risks involved with flame. If it’s not spreading, it’s not an immediate danger to you. But the people in Pripyat had no idea what they were dealing with. They accepted the official storyline, and why wouldn’t they? The immediate problems with radiation weren’t clear, and the cases that were clear were hushed up.

Basically, you end up watching a train wreck in slow motion. But because the film makers are careful to inform you just what’s happening when, and what those implications are, it’s that much more powerful. (Even more impactful when watching it with Denisa, who was 10 years old at the time and living 700 miles away. You’d think that was plenty of space for her to be safe. After all, it’s the distance between me in Maine and Erie, Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t.) The show is also very much informed by the current political events here in America. (Or at least, I was unable to avoid drawing many parallels.)

So much of the problem of Chernobyl came from the response to it. The attitude that if they ignored it or kept it quiet, it would go away. That it was better to safe face than it was to save lives. And you’d like to think that sort of mentality ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. That surely today, qualified people are put into positions of power to make sure they understand the consequences of the decisions they make. But I look at some of the people selected to lead American cabinet positions, and I inspect their qualifications, and I am far from convinced this problem is behind us.

The mini-series starts with this line: “What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, that we no longer recognize the truth at all.” It’s a sentiment that continues to be one of the things that alarms me the most in the world. The constant undercutting of truth.

I think that’s why I find Chernobyl so compelling. It helps inform my views of the present while filling in my understanding of the past. I gave it a 10/10 so far, and I can’t really imagine that will change after the finale. Be aware that it’s TV-MA, mainly for gruesome depictions of what exactly went on in Chernobyl, though there’s also some (very) non-sexual nudity and language.


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