Opinion: HBO's Chernobyl is the best thing on television

Chernobyl is not a TV show for the squeamish.
Chernobyl is not a TV show for the squeamish. Photo credit: HBO

OPINION: If we are in a golden age of television, Chernobyl is the best proof so far.

The five episode miniseries chronicling the world's worst nuclear catastrophe is a monument to what can be achieved on the small screen using HBO's infinite supply of money and talent.

Beginning moments after the reactor meltdown in 1986, Chernobyl manages to convey the shattering scale of the disaster without ever pulling the perspective far enough back to make it impersonal.

A word of warning: this series is not for the squeamish. Hearing how first responders to the exposed reactor would melt from the inside out within days is bad enough, watching it happen is something else.

I've heard Chernobyl described as 'historical horror' and the label fits, the show's unflinching portrayal of radiation unleashed is often difficult to watch. But there's bleak heroism on display as well.  

Firefighters, medics, builders and soldiers all walked into an invisible storm of poison which doomed them to the worst death imaginable in order to stop the contamination spreading.

One particularly grisly episode follows soldiers tasked with putting down every household pet left in the immense contaminated zone surrounding the reactor.  

"The dogs are happy to see us, so shooting the first couple you find each day is easy," the captain tells a new recruit.

"It gets harder to kill them later on," he explains. "Once they get scared they run home to where they feel safe."  

Despite being viscerally upsetting, the show never feels gratuitous, just brutally honest.

Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård fill the lead roles, and if they don't both get Emmys I'll lose my goddamn mind.

Harris plays Professor Valery Legasov, nuclear physicist and scientific voice of reason. He spends much of the show translating the technicalities of a reactor meltdown into simple, confronting sentences such as:

"We are dealing with something that has never occurred on this planet before.

Or: "Every atom of radiation is like a bullet penetrating everything in its path. There are 3 trillion of these bullets in Chernobyl. Some of them won't stop firing for 50,000 years."

Skarsgård, a man whose voice sounds like whiskey-drunk rocks falling down an escalator, plays Boris Shcherbina - a politician trapped between managing the crisis and representing a government incapable of admitting its own failures.

Thankfully, none of the cast affect a faux-Russian accent. We aren't forced to cringe at hearing clearly British people call for glasses of 'wodka'. Chernobyl instead conveys its setting where it really counts, with immaculate set design and attention to detail.

If you're looking for an antidote to Game of Thrones' mediocre 8th season, it's Chernobyl. This a cinematic syringe of horror that will leave you dazzled and devastated.

Finn Hogan is the host of NerdsPLUS, Newshub's pop-culture discussion podcast.