Both deal with truth, justice and government officials putting personal ambition over the public good — even at the expense of ordinary people’s lives. Both are 1980s-set period pieces that resonate in unsettling ways in the present day. Both are unlikely hits that turned difficult subjects into gripping, must-see drama. And both “Chernobyl” and “When They See Us” went into Sunday’s Emmy Awards as the standout nominees in an unusually strong year for limited series.
But in the end, the Television Academy preferred “Chernobyl,” a series with an international pedigree that celebrated science in the face of government propaganda, honoring it with a total of 10 Emmys, including limited series, over “When They See Us,” a distinctly American story about racial bias in the criminal justice system. Writer Craig Mazin and director Johan Renck were also honored for their work.
With 19 nominations — and seven wins in last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys — “Chernobyl” arguably entered Sunday night with the most momentum. (It was also the third most-nominated series of the year, following “Game of Thrones” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
The five-part HBO drama depicts the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine and its aftermath, as scientists Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) fight to uncover the truth about the accident.
“I hope that in some small way our show has helped remind people of the value of the truth and the danger of a lie,” said writer and creator Mazin, accepting the limited series Emmy. Speaking about the people affected by the accident, he invoked the Russian phrase “vichnaya pamyat,” meaning “eternal memory.” “I’d like to think that in television we can do that with stories, we can make things be known permanently.”
“When They See Us,” a four-part series directed and co-written by Oscar-nominated “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay, follows the case of the Central Park Five, a group of black and Latino teenagers who were wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape and spent years in prison before they were exonerated in 2002.
The series received 16 nominations this year, with half those nominations going to members of its large ensemble cast. At last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, “When They See Us” won for casting for a limited series, movie or special. On Sunday it took home a single Emmy, for lead actor in a drama series for star Jharrel Jerome. Jerome played Korey Wise, who was 16 at the time of his arrest and the oldest of the five boys in the case.
At 21, Jerome is the youngest actor ever to win for lead actor in a limited series. He won in a category filled with seasoned veterans, including “Chernobyl” star Harris, Hugh Grant for “A Very English Scandal” and three Oscar winners — Mahershala Ali (“True Detective”), Benicio del Toro (“Escape at Dannemora”) and Sam Rockwell (“Fosse/Verdon”).
“This is for the men we know as the exonerated five,” said the actor, previously known for his role in “Moonlight.”
Neither “Chernobyl” nor “When They See Us” made for light viewing.
Yet both became unlikely hits.
Netflix releases ratings information selectively, so it is difficult to say how big a hit “When They See Us” has been. But in June, DuVernay tweeted that the series had been watched by more than 23 million accounts worldwide.
Co-produced with Sky Atlantic, “Chernobyl” may have benefited from a traditional, week-to-week rollout on HBO. Ratings grew steadily over the season, building strong word-of-mouth and turning a grim, five-hour drama that depicted the horrors of radiation poisoning into meme-worthy required viewing.
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In the lull following the series finale of “Game of Thrones,” both dramas had a quantifiable real-world impact.
Linda Fairstein, the former head of the sex crimes unit in the Manhattan district attorney’s office who aggressively pursued the case against the Central Park Five and later became a popular crime novelist, was dropped by her publisher and resigned from several nonprofit positions following a viewer-led petition. (In a bit of irony, she is played in “When They See Us” by Felicity Huffman.)
The series also invited renewed scrutiny of Donald Trump’s involvement in the case. Within weeks of the attack, the real estate developer and future president stoked a media frenzy by taking out full-page ads in four newspapers calling for the death penalty for the young men. (He is briefly seen in the series in a TV interview and dismissed by one character for seeking his “15 minutes.”)
In response to a question in June from reporter April Ryan spurred by “When They See Us,” Trump again declined to apologize for his role in the public rush to condemn the teenagers.
Meanwhile, “Chernobyl” appears to have inspired an uptick in travel to the exclusion zone, the abandoned area in the Ukraine surrounding the former power plant. A tie-in “Chernobyl” podcast, featuring conversations between Mazin and radio host Peter Sagal, become a hit, amassing more than 6 million downloads, and the Russian government is reportedly planning to make a series of its own.
The two dramas were the favorites in a once-anemic category that in recent years has come to be one of the strongest at the Emmys, thanks in part to both an appetite for fact-based historical docudramas tackling important social issues and the rise of director-driven limited series.
“Chernobyl” may have dominated, but other shows were not entirely shut out. Michelle Williams won the lead actress in a limited-series Emmy for her performance as choreographer Gwen Verdon in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon.” Ben Whishaw took home the award for supporting actor for a limited series for “A Very English Scandal” (Amazon), which tells the story of a closeted British member of Parliament who plotted to have his former lover murdered. Patricia Arquette, up for two Emmys on Sunday, won in the supporting actress category for her work in the Hulu miniseries “The Act.”
Other nominated limited series included Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” an account of the 2015 prison break in upstate New York, and HBO’s Southern Gothic murder mystery “Sharp Objects,” rounding out a year in which the field was defined by heavy subject matter.
As presenter Phoebe Waller-Bridge joked, “Some of these shows are a bit much.”