It’s not as if the world was eagerly awaiting a TV series about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, an event that occurred 33 years ago. So when “Chernobyl,” HBO’s five-part limited series, premiered in May with little advance publicity, it seemed to come out of nowhere.
But the series, which stars Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson as a trio of Soviet scientists and functionaries trying to combat bureaucratic lies and cover-ups about the cause and consequences of the explosion, was greeted with ecstatic praise – Times TV critic Lorraine Ali called it “a suspenseful, tragic and illuminating drama.” “Chernobyl” was eventually seen by over 12 million viewers, sold to nearly 200 countries and territories, and was nominated for 19 Emmy Awards, a number topped only by “Game of Thrones’” 32 nominations and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” 20.
Not bad for a beautifully made, but unrelentingly bleak show about one of humanity’s greatest fears – the threat of nuclear catastrophe.
So why now?
“There are some permanent lessons from Chernobyl,” says series writer-executive producer Craig Mazin. “The entirety of the disaster comes down to human weakness. Chernobyl is a shocking episode, and we are constantly in the middle of these episodes. We are living in a global ‘Chernobyl’ now regarding the climate, and our relationship with the climate is not that different from our relationship with nuclear power. We are playing fast and loose with it.”
“We are living in a time when our impact on the planet is being questioned and — by special interests — denied,” adds series director Johan Renck. “But the series is first and foremost about giving voices to the victims, those who sacrificed and the saviors of one of the biggest man-made catastrophes in history. There is always a ‘now’ for such.”
In fact, “Chernobyl” is just the latest in a long line of nuclear scare movies and TV shows that date back to the early 1950s, and involve such things as mutations caused by radiation (1954’s “Them!” featuring giant ants); life after a nuclear holocaust (the hugely successful 1983 TV movie “The Day After”); and power plant incidents similar to Chernobyl (1979’s “The China Syndrome,” which gained particular immediacy because it opened 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident).
Mazin claims, however, that “Chernobyl” differs from these other efforts in one significant way. “Our show is the most scientifically oriented show or movie about the way this stuff works,” he says. “Our purpose is not to terrorize, inspire or romanticize. It was to look at the truth and how it goes wrong. The enemy is not the atom, the enemy is us.”
“The series has a place among pieces on our shortcomings, vanities and greed and the ramifications of those,” adds Renck. “Yes, ‘Chernobyl is about the unearthing of Cthulhu [a powerful entity created by writer H.P. Lovecraft] but less about the beast itself and more about how we choose to deal with it.”
But the somber nature of the show, and its revelations about human nature are one thing. Why so many people wound up watching it is another — something that seems to mystify even its creators.
“During production, I felt that the project was shaping up to be idiosyncratic and intriguing,” says Renck, “and that I was loving what was in front of me. But I also felt that no one would watch it. Too dark, too tragic, too hopeless for mass appeal. Thus — never second guess an audience.”
“People just liked it; that’s the bottom line,” adds Mazin. “We saw every week the viewership would go up. It’s the most watched HBO limited series since ‘Band of Brothers.’ That just blew me away.”
It seems, however, that after the program was broadcast in Russia, there was some push to produce a domestic, alternate history version of the events. According to Mazin, people seemed to be saying, “Why do we need other people to tell our story? [‘Chernobyl’] told a Soviet story, every hero was a Soviet hero, and they were embarrassed they hadn’t done this.” But, he adds, after a trailer of the alternate version — which seemed to show a tale told through the eyes of a KGB (Committee for State Security) agent tracking down saboteurs — was placed on YouTube, the work did not go down well with the public and appears to be in limbo.
All well and good because ultimately “Chernobyl” may be about the failings of the Soviet system, but it also delves into a universal dilemma, particularly in this day and age — the search for the truth.
“It’s important for people to think critically about everything they see or hear,” says Mazin, summing up what he would like viewers to take away from the series. “If someone is putting forth a narrative point of view, they are trying to sell you something. I hope people come away from this with a desire to question things they hear.”
The lesson of the show, adds Renck, is a simple one: “That truth will always prevail. It will come for you, whoever you are.”