Part 1 of 5
Date of airing: May 6, 2019 (HBO)
Nielsen ratings information: 0.756 million viewers, 0.19 rating with Adults 18-49, 0.06 rating with Adults 18-34, 0.26 rating with Adults 25-54, 0.44 rating with Adults 50+
How to watch a television show with characters you don’t know anything about? Hoe to review a television show with characters who don’t have been established properly? You have the “cast in order of appearance” list, but what does that bring you, when rarely more than five characters are called by their name, while the rest of the episode did not establish anything resembling a back story? The premise of the show could be as exciting as stepping on the moon and walking around, but that’s not gonna help me when I don’t have any characters to connect to.
This might be the lesson to learn from the first episode of CHERNOBYL. A very tense beginning of the miniseries, depicting the immediate aftermath of the explosion, turning the premiere episode into a realistic horror film, in which you find yourself slowly (but quickly) dying after taking a look into the reactor core. A horror film, in which the characters realize no one is listening to you, their superiors have no clue what is actually happening in the power plant, and the state itself never wants to believe that something as catastrophic as an explosion of the reactor core can actually happen here. What this episode definitely focused on was the horror of the immediate aftermath of the explosion, as well as the first instances of the Soviet state downplaying and downtalking the explosion, filing it under a minor mishap without any consequences, and shutting up everyone who might say otherwise. This could make CHERNOBYL an interesting show without having to focus too much on the characters: Turn the story into a political and environmental upheaval, and showcase that the disaster had a geopolitical aftermath as well, which the viewers might not even know about, considering the way the Soviet Union was already trying to keep the real accident a secret from everyone. Not knowing a lot about the history of Chernobyl and what followed after (which is kind of a shame for me, since I was born a few months after the disaster, which means as a family living in the Eastern block of Berlin, Chernobyl might have caused a little bit of worry), it could be educational to find out more about it in general, and not just the fact that the radioactive cloud was screwing everything over and killing people, turning Pripyat and its surroundings into a ghost region. But here is the thing: When I don’t know anything about the Chernobyl disaster, how am I supposed to know what about the show is historically accurate, and what within the story is essentially creative freedom by its sole writer Craig Mazin?
I am however happy that this entire episode focused on the immediate aftermath of the explosion. 55 minutes of sheer terror set within the first 6-or-so hours after the core blew up, and all of a sudden I am intrigued to know what the premise would have looked like with a Hollywood film budget and with someone like Peter Berg on the helm, who did respectable work with real-life disaster films like DEEPWATER HORIZON and PATRIOTS DAY. Would he have delivered the same kind of intensity as this episode did, with darkness behind every corner, but as soon as you look at the power plant from the city, its almost-brightness might freak you out? Would a Hollywood blockbuster production have had the same claustrophobic feeling this episode had, when the workers at the plant were walking through the destructed hallways, closing in on the reactor room? Would a big-budgeted movie have had the same effect on me, when Sitnikov was “forced” to get to the roof and look down to the reactor building, but instead just saw a freaking black cloud of death shooting out of the reactor core? Those are quite shocking moments to realize that the worked was about to end, and you probably can’t do a single thing to stop that from happening. And thankfully, all those moments worked beautifully during this episode.
The rest however … not so much. But it begs the question how differently one could have started off the miniseries, and whether it might have been a good idea to start the narrative on the day before the accident, just so the main players of said narrative can be introduced. In a way, Jared Harris’ character Valery Legasov has been the only character getting the honor to be introduced to the audience, but only because it was decided to begin the show with the end of the character. And maybe the Ignatenkos have been somewhat introduced, as they were the first to see from their window that the plant has just blown up, giving a sense of what the two were like before shit was raining down to kill them all. I would have loved at least some moments with character depth, because after 55 minutes I don’t know a single thing about each of the characters, let alone do I know their names by memory (the end credits are helping me out here). One can only hope the next episode or two will fix that, otherwise CHERNOBYL will become a show difficult to grasp, because none of the characters are known to the viewers.
Best part of the episode: The shots of the burning reactor building from the point of view of the firemen was super impressive. It looked like part of destroyed Europe during World War Two, but for them it was current and right now, and it looked like armageddon. It was dark, it probably smelled bad, and you tend to notice sick people around you, after they touched the graphite. That was even more of a nightmare image than the plant workers just walking through the hallways.
Worst part of the episode: Maybe it was a little too dark though, as barely anything was visible to the naked eye. While I like the realistic setting of the show, I would have loved more visuals, even if the episode was already defined by images of the actual core, as well as the radioactive smoke shooting out of it.
Weirdest part of the episode: It’s not really weird, because it’s part of the narrative, but seeing the people in Pripyat being “snowed in” by the ash and radioactive cloud from the plant while they look at it burn from the distance is something that could also give me nightmares. There they were, feeling safe, but then the scene turned into a mirror image of that movie theater scene in OUTBREAK, and suddenly everyone was in danger of dying of radiation. And no one even knows to give a shit.
Player of the episode: All the supervisors, superiors and state people in this episode made themselves known as the power players of the incident. They successfully portrayed what I imagined the Soviet Union sounded like in the 1980s, and what its successor Russia sounds like in 2019.