According to the IMDb, HBO/Sky’s miniseries CHERNOBYL is now the most critically acclaimed TV show of all time. It’s in all the trailers now: “9.6/10”. This does not matter. I’m not one of those “who cares what the critics think?” viewers – pop cultural criticism has its place. What I’m here to argue is that the success of a show like Chernobyl goes much deeper.
Having a significant, perhaps one of the most significant of all world events as the basis of your TV series helps. Even if you don’t know the ins and outs of what happened, just saying “Chernobyl” to the average person on the street conjures certain phrases – “nuclear meltdown”, “radiation poisoning”, “cancer” – and images of deserted grey tenement blocks. The show presents the evidence for academics and experts to debate and the gut-wrenching real human experience for everyone else.
Word of mouth is far more important to selling a hard-going and upsetting true story than 5* reviews. A guy down the pub telling his mate he gave the show a go, expecting to find simply depressing but instead became completely enraptured by it, contributes far more to people watching, and therefore a show’s actual success, its current place in the public consciousness, than a critic banging on about the performances or the political and thematic subtext.
The thing is, unless you have a prior interest in the subject you likely won’t “feel like” popping on an episode of Chernobyl straight after, say, a long day at the office. But if someone you know and trust has recommended it and you give it a go, then you’re hooked. I’ve spoken to a few friends who were reluctant to start it lest it left them depressed, but they still ended up watching a couple of episodes back-to-back because they had to see what became of these characters they came to care about.
The atmosphere on the show is pervasive, the near-constant soundscape of nuclear hums and Geiger counter clicks envelops you in this world. Once you’re sucked in and the characters and their stories compel you, the real-world injustices hit home. It’ll probably compel even the most history-phobic viewer to do their own reading, to verify just how wrong the “official” story is.
I was told I had to watch Chernobyl by my parents and by a friend. They were right. Three moments in particular will stay with me. When the arrogant Chief Engineer Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) still refuses to accept that the Chernobyl reactor exploded even when presented with incontrovertible evidence – there’s this little moment, a pause as he looks at the photos, a crack in his armour appears dead you realise he’s just a Party Man who’s terrified of what will happen to him if he admits the truth. Then when during the trial Legasov (Jared Harris) repeats a statement given in defence of the actions of the USSR, “Why worry about something that isn’t going to happen? That’s perfect – they should put that on our money”. Finally, as the final episode draws to a close we are presented with some statistics, and the final one left me livid: regarding the death toll, “the official Soviet recording puts the figure at 31”.
Watch Chernobyl because it’s worth seeing, because it’s a story worth passing on. Then tell others to do the same. It’ll stay with you. SSP