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Why HBO's Chernobyl is the best show you'll ever watch (arguably)

Updated: Feb 28, 2022

Michel de Freitas, 8th December 2021

2019 was a very good year for cinema and television. With movies such as Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, Uncut Gems and Todd Phillips' divisive Joker, along with the amazing TV show Succession, there is no way it got better, right? Wrong!

Let me introduce you to Chernobyl (2019), a stressful drama TV show that shocked audiences all over the world, quickly becoming one of the most critically acclaimed television series ever (yes, up there with Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and The Wire if you feel like it). The show, directed by Johan Renck, took home 10 Emmy Awards and 9 BAFTAs (becoming the most awarded British TV show ever), so it's pretty obvious that this show nailed every aspect possible with the best hammer they could find. With that said let's jump straight into them.


The plot

A good plot is the first and most important step when creating a TV show. Chernobyl doesn't have a good plot, it has the best plot. We've come to expect great things from HBO, but I don't think anything comes as near to what Craig Mazin (the writer) achieved. From the depressing, sad and world-ending atmosphere to the bittersweet heartfelt moments that make up the story about one of the biggest accidental disasters of the last century, this show makes you feel everything.

The beginning, the middle and the end of this 5 episode TV show are probably unmatched by any other series. I don't like to compare this one with other shows, since this is a mini-series but I seriously can't think of anything that is as uncanny and perfect as this.

According to IMDb, this miniseries follows Valery Legasov, the lead scientist working to control the disaster, Boris Shcherbina, a Soviet politician representing the interests of the Soviet government during the disaster, and Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist working to uncover the truth about what really happened at Chernobyl. Still not interested? Have a quick look at the trailer:

I can't write much about what the plot actually is, since it would spoil the series, but one thing is for sure: it is perfect.


The acting/characters

The acting played a big role in this masterpiece. It had to fit the depressing tone that the series intended in order for it to feel real and melancholic. This is no easy task and that's why many TV shows end up failing. But of course, HBO wouldn't let that happen.

Jarred Harris (who portrays Professor Legasov) pulls off one of the best performances I have personally seen in a TV show. He matches the tone in such a wonderful way that you really sympathize with him and support his decisions throughout the entirety of the show. To further prove my point, Jared took home both an Emmy and a BAFTA award for best leading role in a TV show. The character Harris portrayed was very complete: you can see his flaws as a person but you can also see his virtues and, I speak for myself when say this, he is "dope as hell".

Legasov was and still remains one of my favourite leading roles in a series, but the good acting doesn't stop here. As a matter of fact, it doesn't stop at all. Which brings me to Stellan Skarsgård, who portrays Boris Shcherbina.

The Swedish actor complemented Legasov creating a very solid duo. I really liked Stellan's character traits throughout the show, especially his assertiveness and desire to change, backing Legasov whenever he needed it.

I mean, just look at Boris... How can you not like him? I liked him the second I saw him. That, for me, is a sign that a character will be very good and interesting.

I'm not going to talk about the other characters/actors, since these two end up being the main ones, but I can assure you that all of them did a marvellous job at recreating the terrifying reality that Chernobyl was.


The cinematography

By watching the trailer, you get the idea of how good the cinematography is in this show. Every frame from Chernobyl felt special and there was no moment in the show where I just "liked" the cinematography. Every second made my jaw drop.

For some reason, the way this show was filmed really makes you "feel" Chernobyl. The cold colour palette helps create a more depressing environment, and the frequent use of desaturated green makes you feel the radioactivity from reactor 4.

Another crucial aspect of the cinematography in Chernobyl was its use to create different perspectives. The camera movement works in a subjective way, not in an objective way, which helps create tension throughout the show as you experience things along with the characters. You'll notice that they have many long shots focused on the characters' faces, this makes for a much more personal and stressful connection with the audience as they only know as much as they do. The smaller number of wide shots make them more special and shocking.

Overall, the beautiful use of perspective in the cinematography creates a personal world where everyone is, up to a certain point, clueless of what's about to happen. And by everyone, I'm including the audience.


The soundtrack

Do I really have to write about the genius of Hildur Guðnadóttir? Chernobyl is arguably her best work yet.

The dark, scary yet impactful scores used in Chernobyl not only complement the series, but they also define it. The show sets the tone in the first minutes, and as soon as the first score stars playing (about 4 minutes in), you get this doomed feeling, a feeling that the world is soon going into deep despair.

My personal favourite score is "Bridge of Death":

It's not really debatable that 2019 was Hildur's year.


The sound design

I don't usually mention the sound design when reviewing a show or movie, but I feel the need to emphasize how perfect this show really is. The soundtrack together with the sound effects and sound design made for the ultimate experience. The choice of sounds and foley made the show very creepy and intense. Take the dosimeter as an example, the simple use of it throughout the show really gets into your bones, and there is no way of forgetting it.


The visual effects

Keeping it short, the few effects used were spot-on perfect. I say "little" because of the previously mentioned subjectiveness of the camera, as it never really objectifies the world around the characters. But when it does, it makes for a more stunning and impactful moment.

Not to mention the practical effects and make-up, which are so realistic and frightening.


Final thoughts

I watched this show twice and it was even better the second time around. It's a masterclass and a must-watch for those who want to pursue anything film related. Keep in mind that it isn't an easy watch, since some moments are really real and down-to-earth making some scenes very very sad or depressing. But that's what makes this show so special: it makes you feel as if you were there, witnessing this terrible disaster, in 1986.

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