Screen Test

Gripping nuclear disaster story versus outdated police drama

Chernobyl, which examines the 1986 nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine, stars Stellan Skarsgard (far left) and Jared Harris (left). L.A.'s Finest is a police drama starring Jessica Alba (above).
Chernobyl, which examines the 1986 nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine, stars Stellan Skarsgard (left) and Jared Harris (right). PHOTOS: HBO, SONY PICTURES TELEVISION
Chernobyl, which examines the 1986 nuclear plant meltdown in Ukraine, stars Stellan Skarsgard (far left) and Jared Harris (left). L.A.'s Finest is a police drama starring Jessica Alba (above).
L.A.'s Finest is a police drama starring Jessica Alba (above).PHOTOS: HBO, SONY PICTURES TELEVISION

A series about a nuclear accident in Ukraine does not sound like the most enticing viewing prospect even if you do like a good disaster story.

Today, the 1986 Chernobyl power-plant meltdown barely registers in popular memory. What happened seems more or less cut and dried, and a singularly Soviet story somehow.

Yet the gripping five-part miniseries, Chernobyl, manages to viscerally recreate it - the horror, heroism and sheer folly of it all.

And watching people at every level deny evidence right in front of them, one thinks of the failure to react to other unfolding catastrophes - like climate change or the incipient risks of advanced artificial intelligence.

On April 26, 1986, a safety test at the Chernobyl nuclear plant goes awry and explodes the reactor core - something everyone thought was impossible.

Lethal radiation is spreading as far away as Scandinavia and yet the plant chief refuses to believe the core is breached, as do the apparatchiks in charge.

Instead of taking action to contain it, they wax on about Lenin, cut the phone lines and call in troops to stop "misinformation" spreading.

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Once the cat is finally out of the bag, the Kremlin sends in a response team and one of its members, nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris, Mad Men, 2007 to 2015), is the first to grasp the extent of the crisis.

The story pivots among him, his sometime adversary and Cabinet minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a physicist who realises the meltdown has not been contained.

Design failures, errors in judgment, bad faith and sheer criminality - there is plenty to support this revisionist history of what happened, which the show's creators say was exhaustively researched.

But it is also just an exquisite piece of storytelling that transports the viewer to the cursed city of Pripyat. Firemen who were not told the plant was radioactive wonder why the air tastes like metal, motes of radioactive dust land on the hair of curious spectators and maxed-out dosimeters become a death rattle worthy of a horror film.

There are also some wonderfully terse exchanges, as when Legasov tells Shcherbina they will both be dead from cancer in five years, or the pair talking to a team of straight-shooting miners called in to help - scenes that combine humour and pathos.

The narrative slows down a tad in later chapters, but the story is no less powerful for it.

L.A.'s Finest, a new police show, is a different kind of disaster: a half-hearted spin-off that no one really asked for.

Jessica Alba (Sin City, 2005) and Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane, 2013 to 2019) play partnered-up Los Angeles police officers with murky pasts they are hiding from each other.

Union is reprising her character from the Bad Boys action comedies starring Will Smith, which came out in 1995 and 2003.

 

Based on the two episodes provided for review, that is when this outdated series feels like it is ripped from, despite being set in the present day and incorporating storylines involving social media and the like.

Alba and Union have tons of screen presence and the camera loves them, but there is so little for them to sink their teeth into here, between the dull case-of-the-week procedural elements and the unfunny takes on buddy-cop cliches.

There has not been a decent American police series featuring two female cops in a while, but if gender equality means the right to star in an unoriginal show with a bland male supporting cast - and maybe it does - then women have truly arrived.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2019, with the headline 'Gripping nuclear disaster story versus outdated police drama'. Print Edition | Subscribe