The first thing you notice about “Chernobyl” is the lack of Russian accents.
The HBO miniseries is a co-production of the UK-based company Sky, and as a result much of its cast is made up of actors from around the UK. That left creator Craig Mazin and his team with two options: Get a dialect coach for everyone, or just let the actors use their normal voices. The latter choice, the simpler choice, is what worked.
“Chernobyl,” you see, isn’t all that concerned with creating artifice in its performance, at least not beyond the costumes and sets. It wants its actors to speak to you naturally, to preserve the truth in every word they’re saying, because “Chernobyl” is after something bigger than a convincing Russian accent. “Every lie we tell incurs a debt on the truth,” scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) says in one key moment of the series. It may well be the show’s mission statement, and while discussing that in the context of something as superficial as the dialect of actors might seem silly, the other key mission statement of “Chernobyl” is an intense, almost maddening attention to detail. The accents were left out for a reason. The accents were left out because the show wants you, as an English-speaking viewer, to pay as much attention as possible.
The miniseries recreates – in painstaking, often jaw-dropping detail – the 1986 nuclear disaster at the titular Soviet power plant, a disaster that’s still echoing down the history of Russian and former Soviet nations, and which still holds a great deal of fascination for the whole world. In that sense, there’s little mystery about what happens. The series is much more interested in how things happened, and to that end it focuses much of its narrative on three key characters: Legasov, a nuclear energy expert called in to consult in the aftermath of the disaster, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard), a Soviet bureaucrat overseeing the cleanup on behalf of the Communist Council of Ministers, and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite character (likely the most heavily dramatized part of the story) who figures out the nature of the disaster on her own and spends the entire series using her knowledge of nuclear physics to get to the truth of what really happened.
On the surface, it sounds a little dry, almost like a documentary that just happens to have hired the best possible re-enactors for the job. We know what happened Chernobyl. We know the basics, anyway. We’ve seen the photos, and we’ve maybe even gone to YouTube and watched as various explorers have visited the abandoned town of Pripyat and mined the contamination zone for creepy pictures of empty classrooms and discarded dolls.
We know this story. So why did it need to be told now, and why did the result of that telling turn out to be one of the best shows of, if not the single best show, of 2019?
Now that the entirety of “Chernobyl” has aired, and particularly now that its final, traditionally anti-climactic but somehow ultimately gripping series finale has landed, it’s a bit easier to see exactly why this show was so memorably brilliant. It’s a show about the nature of truth, and perhaps more importantly a show about how we reconcile the truth with the context in which we perceive it.
The series follows Legasov, Shcherbina, and Khomyuk as they try to both clean up after the Chernobyl disaster and get to the bottom of exactly how something that was supposed to be impossible (a nuclear reactor core flat-out exploding rather than melting down) ended up happening in a country where the powers that be are more interested in insisting that it’s not possible and therefore didn’t happen than they are in simply acknowledging mistakes. We watch as the protagonists navigate the bureaucratic inroads necessary to do things like acquiring manpower to contain the damage, while they also feel the iron fist of the KGB closing around them when they get too close to a very public revelation. As this is happening, Mazin wisely also shows us various supporting characters as they navigate the fallout: A pregnant wife trying to find her firefighter husband, a volunteer who is ultimately assigned to hunt and kill irradiated pets in the contamination zone (in the series’ most brutal episode), the workers at the plant who know some of what happened but not all of it, and so on.
As it moves through these events, showing them to us through the eyes of these characters, “Chernobyl” takes pains to never make something more outwardly dramatic than it actually was, because it doesn’t need to. We don’t need to see hyperventilating chase sequences with Russian spies, because watching workers try to clear debris from a roof while knowing they only have 90 seconds before absorbing a deadly level of radiation is heart-pounding enough. We don’t need to see hyper-dramatic sequences of destruction, because watching irradiated ash fall on a group of people who just think they’re watching an interesting, harmless fire is devastating enough.
Throughout all of that, the focus is on each character attempting to understand what the truth really is, what debts have been incurred thanks to the lies told already, and what difference it really makes when their lives are already in pieces. It’s a fascinating, staggering meditation on honesty, loyalty, and ambition, and it could not be more timely than it is right now.
If you missed “Chernobyl” as it was airing, it’s time to seek it out. If you watched it already, it’s time to watch it again, because it wasn’t just a gut-punching historical drama. It was a TV masterpiece.
‘Chernobyl’ is streaming now on HBOGo and HBONow.