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Television

Analysis:: The perfect storm that made ‘Chernobyl’ must-see TV

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Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, a scientist investigating the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, in HBO’s five-part miniseries.
(Liam Daniel / HBO)

“Chernobyl” isn’t the likeliest of hits. The five-part HBO/Sky Atlantic co-production, which concluded earlier this month, offers a detailed examination of the causes and consequences of the April 1986 explosion at the nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine — including sustained attention to the intricacies of Soviet bureaucracy, the nature of fission and the gruesome results of radiation poisoning. It lacks the bombast of “Game of Thrones,” the star power of “Big Little Lies,” the lacerating humor of “Veep.”

And yet “Chernobyl,” written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, has attracted more than 9 million cumulative viewers to date, according to HBO — plus 6.5 million downloads or views for the five episodes and trailer of its companion piece, “The Chernobyl Podcast,” in which Mazin and co-host Peter Sagal separate fact from fiction in the series’ version of events. (That number includes 2.3 million downloads or views since June 5; the series finale aired June 3.)

“When we talk about broad audiences, we’re usually talking about art that has a fairly wide target — generally speaking, everybody can agree that this sort of thing might be exciting or fun or sad,” Mazin says in a telephone interview. “[‘Chernobyl’] is not a broad audience kind of show, at least in my mind, but it turns out that there’s a much wider interest in this kind of storytelling than everybody expected.”

For networks eager to cut through the clutter of “peak TV,” and viewers with more scripted original series to choose from than ever before, “Chernobyl” highlights the perfect storm of contributing factors often required to help a TV show break through.

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In addition to the traditional models for building an audience — critical acclaim, Emmy buzz, the week-to-week ratings increases that suggest positive word of mouth — the series benefited from parallels to the climate change crisis and the proliferation of misinformation, renewed interest in Russia and the Cold War, even its manageable length.

“The Chernobyl Podcast” taps into this organic fascination in part because it doesn’t come across as a form of marketing: Mazin, whose “Scriptnotes” podcast with co-host John August launched in the summer of 2011, wanted to make a companion piece from the outset.

REVIEW: HBO’s haunting ‘Chernobyl’ focuses on the truth tellers who paid dearly »

“I was pretty sure that no one was going to listen to it,” Mazin explains. “I just thought this was something that I was doing because it was the right thing to do. And I don’t think anybody at HBO felt like this was a huge promotional opportunity.” Instead, he remembers thinking, “Theoretically, one ad on the side of one bus in New York will do more to promote the show than this thing.”

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As Vulture’s Josef Adalian noted in his post-finale report on “Chernobyl’s” ratings, weekly episodic releases allowed for the series to amass an audience over time, an effect underscored by the praise heaped upon the series by “Five Came Back” author Mark Harris, “The Wire” creator David Simon, and others after the series finale.

And in a crowded landscape, viewers seeking relevance to the present political moment could find it — whether in the form of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and composite character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), scientists who must fight tooth and nail to be heard by high-ranking officials with their heads in the sand, or Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), the apparatchik willing to sacrifice the residents of the nearby town of Pripyat in order to save face. (Mazin even had to disabuse conservative media personality Dan Bongino of the notion that the series is proof of the “failure of socialism.”)

Along with its willingness to draw on popular genres — disaster movie, legal drama — to ensure engagement with challenging material, à la FX’s “American Crime Story,” this range of ways into “Chernobyl” allowed HBO to capitalize on existing interest in the catastrophe.

“I think in some ways, the most powerful subjects are those that are familiar enough to be understood but foreign enough to be exotic,” says Justinian Jampol, executive director and founder of the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City. “[N]obody goes from nothing to a seasoned cultural historian or thoughtful, nuanced observer [overnight]. I see ‘Chernobyl’ as a gateway drug. It is a great way to understand the basics enough to get people to dive in.”

Even a modicum of controversy can help: While Forbes explained “Why HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Gets Nuclear So Wrong,” the likes of CBS, Business Insider and The Week examined the series’ historical accuracy more broadly. Perhaps the most severe critique came from Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, who wrote in The New Yorker that “the creators of ‘Chernobyl’ imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable — and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie.”

“This is not a TV show anymore. It’s a symbol,” Jampol says, citing reports that Russian state television is already at work on a competing Chernobyl project, one that will claim CIA involvement in the disaster. “History is always instrumentalized by those who need it to be.”

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That the events depicted in “Chernobyl” are once again a political hot potato has only boosted the series’ profile, and that “The Chernobyl Podcast” confronts these questions about its accuracy head-on dovetails nicely with the conversation surrounding the series — the sort of synergy that most companion podcasts can only dream of. After all, though Mazin may be surprised that the series and podcast have amassed the size of following they have, he knew all along that the story told in “Chernobyl” had contemporary resonance. That’s why he made it.

“One of the reasons to tell any kind of historical event, to re-present it for people, is because it is relevant now,” he says. “There are historical events that are interesting, they’re just not that relevant. I think this one is interesting and relevant.”


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