There are TV shows that leave you gripping your arm rests and TV shows that leave you quivering with fear. Chernobyl, Sky and HBO’s new drama about the nuclear power plant disaster, is a TV show that leaves your hands so clammy with dread that you can’t grip anything.
The April 1986 incident is one of the most well known catastrophes in history, but it’s also one of the least discussed; most people don’t know the details of what happened. This six-part thriller clinically hones in on one key fact: nobody there knew what happened either. Written by Craig Mazin, the show thrusts us into a chaotic nightmare where the ground is shifting beneath everyone’s feet, in all senses of the word; while scientists try to diagnose what went wrong and how to fix it, politicians make the contaminated water even muddier than it already is, coming up with false truths, alternative facts and half lies to insist everything is ok.
It’s a theme that resonates all too strongly with the climate change misinformation of today, but Chernobyl is all the more chilling because it doesn’t grandstand over its issues; it’s too busy pointing out the very immediate personal costs at stake. Our window onto events is Valery (Jared Harris), a physicist who is approached to be an expert on the panel to address the fallout – an expert who must only answer questions when spoken to and certainly never ask any of his own.
He’s joined by an excellent Paul Ritter, who plays Anatoly, the man in charge within the power plant, who refuses – despite very obvious evidence – that nothing is wrong. As men inside the building, and firefighters outside, are ordered to fix the problem, every step that sends unwitting humans into radioactive danger gets more painful to watch. Between the gainsaying denials and the political meeting that leaves people cheering Mikhail Gorbachev, it’s like an episode of The Thick of It, if The Thick of It were a horror movie.
The horror is, of course, presented with stunning visuals, more ethereal and haunting than beautiful; director Johan Renck, who helmed Sky Atlantic’s The Last Panthers, as well as David Bowie’s Blackstar, composes each frame with grim details and sickening bursts of colour. “Do we have iodine tablets?” asks one nurse in the nearby hospital. “Why would we?” comes the reply, as the fire looms over the horizon in the background. If you can stomach another five hours, this nerve-jangling affair is shaping up to be one of the most striking TV shows of the year.
Chernobyl premieres weekly at 9pm every Tuesday on Sky Atlantic. Don’t have Sky? You can watch it online legally in the UK with NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription – with a 7-day free trial for new customers.