Chernobyl - Best ever Sky TV box sets: The chilling true story of nuclear disaster starring Jared Harris

Incredibly visceral, the multi-award-winning series is a difficult but impressive watch. Here’s why you should add it to your NOW TV must-watch list.

Published: 3 March 2020 - 3.05pm
Sky UK Ltd/HBO Stellan Skarsgard as Boris Shcherbin
Watch Chernobyl on NOW TV

Telling the true story of nuclear disaster on an unprecedented scale, Sky and HBO’s mini-series Chernobyl has garnered wide-spread acclaim, earning 10 Emmys and two Golden Globes. 

The statistics relating to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are hard to comprehend. The death toll caused by the April 1986 event is heavily disputed, but ranges from 31 to 93,000, while the town of Pripyat, where the nuclear plant’s workers lived, is so contaminated by plutonium isotopes that it cannot be inhabited for another 24,000 years.

Around 200,000 people were relocated after the explosion, and almost 150,000 sq km (57,915 sq miles) of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are thought to be contaminated

Despite the huge numbers of people affected by the disaster, the show’s writer and producer chose to focus on its impact on individuals. Rooted in extensive research, Craig Mazin’s scripts were heavily inspired by the stories collected by Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. 

Watch the trailer

Sweden’s Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) directed the five-part series, which starred Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson and Jessie Buckley.

To avoid distracting viewers with Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian accents, the actors all retain their natural accents. This was also so they would concentrate on expressing their emotions, rather than on their accents, Mazin told Metro

"‘What we found very quickly is that actors will act accents. They will not act, they will act accents, and we were losing everything about these people that we loved," he said.

With its cinematic images, atmospheric score by Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and compelling scripts, it’s essential viewing, though it’s often a difficult watch, given the visceral storytelling.

Here are just a few reasons why you should watch Chernobyl...

It’s pretty much all true

Evacuation of Pripyat Sky UK Ltd/HBO

In the early hours of Saturday April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the north of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exploded.

The radioactive material released in the disaster had wide-ranging consequences, both in the USSR and around the world. High levels of radiation were recorded in Sweden just two days after the event, while sales of lamb and other sheep products were restricted in Britain until 2012, out of fear of contamination. 

While the series uses some dramatic licence, writer Craig Mazin was fastidious in his attention to detail, reading countless books and scientific reports about the disaster, and has been widely praised for his retelling of the events.

Jared Harris, who played scientist Valery Legasov in the series, defended the show against critics, telling Deadline that the medium of television drama helped to tell the true story.

“Over five hours we’ll hear a story that actually took place over two years. Of course a lot is going to be left out, and the narrative will be telescoped.” 

He added: “Honestly, people could read a 40,000-volume document on Chernobyl and then miss everything because there’s too much detail.”

Many of the people who appear in the series actually existed. Though Emily Watson’s character, Ulana Khomyuk (pictured below), is fictional, she was based on several scientists who worked on the disaster.

“There were hundreds of scientists that ultimately worked on the problem of Chernobyl,” Mazin explained in the show’s official podcast.

“Valery Legasov, played by Jared Harris, was kind of the scientist in charge of this effort, but there were so many more who were involved. And those scientists... a lot of them actually were in positions of opposition, essentially, to Legasov.

"They were, at times, more aggressive about the potential dangers, they challenged him on some of the solutions that he was considering. And in order to consolidate these many, many people into one, I felt I had to create a composite character.”

Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk Sky UK Ltd/HBO

The accompanying podcast is great 

There are dozens of articles online which attempt to separate fact from fiction in the series, but Chernobyl’s accompanying podcast, hosted by Peter Sagal and the show’s creator Craig Mazin, goes one step further. 

“When you write an account of history, you choose what to portray and what to exclude,” Mazin wrote in the Hollywood Reporter. “You choose perspective. You imagine conversations for which there are no records. You compress. You focus the events through a thematic lens.” 

The podcast allows Mazin to explain his creative decisions, including why he decided to fictionalise certain aspects of the show, and to expand on other elements. 

Over five episodes (one for each episode of the TV series), he talks about how he explained complicated nuclear physics to casual TV viewers, why he decided to do away with Russian accents and lets him elaborate on stories that didn’t make it into the script. 

The attention to detail is amazing

“Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow,” praised The New Yorker.  

The show’s creators were committed to accurately depict what life was like for the people living in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

“I wanted to avoid creating a 1980s period piece and instead make something that reflected the Soviet Union as a bubble in its own right,” explained production designer Luke Hull, who conducted location scouting trips in the former USSR as part of his research for the project.

Costumes were made from vintage bolts of cloth from the 1980s to add authenticity to the clothing. 

Craig Mazin told Vox it was important for everyone working on the show to pay attention to detail.

“We just made the decision among ourselves, among every production department, that the best way we could show our respect to this culture was to depict it accurately, down to details no one in the United States would ever care about and no one in the United Kingdom would ever care about. But somebody watching it in Ukraine would say, “They cared enough to get it right," he explained.

Jessie Buckley as Lyudmila Sky UK Ltd/HBO

“There is something there in the aesthetics that touches the modern consciousness,” Svetlana Alexievich, the author of Voices of Chernobyl, told RadioFreeEurope

“There is a dose of fear. There is reasoning. There is beauty. That is something that has always worried me about evil, when it's not out in the open, when so much is confusing."

She added that the programme had helped her fellow Belarussians realise the true scale of the disaster.

“We are now witnessing a new phenomenon that Belarusians, who suffered greatly and thought they knew a lot about the tragedy, have completely changed their perception about Chernobyl and are interpreting this tragedy in a whole new way.” 

The show won an impressive six trophies at the Royal Television Society Craft & Design Awards (for costume design, make up design, music, photography, production design and sound), with judges praising the ‘extraordinary’ collaboration between departments, with “perfect attention to detail, heightening the sense of terror and horrifying reality.”

Filming on location in Lithuania and Ukraine, both former Soviet republics, also contributed to the sense of authenticity in the show. Fabijoniškės, a neighbourhood in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, stands in for Pripyat, where the power plant workers lived, and was built around the same time as the town. 

But it’s not just the scenery and sets that show what life was like in the USSR. Chernobyl shows how the Soviet government downplayed the event, and manipulated information about the disaster which contributed to more avoidable deaths. 

The Conversation called it “a master class about government deceit,” showing how people in power would claim everything was under control, and suppressing any information to the contrary. 

Soviet mural on the set of Chernobyl Sky UK Ltd/HBO

The scenes shown in the TV series only scratch the surface of the true extent of Soviet deception, according to journalist Kim Willsher, who reported on the disaster with photographer John Downing soon after it happened.

“Even as radiation spewed out of the plant from the burning reactor core, local people told John and me how they had seen Communist apparatchiks [someone working for the Communist Party government] in the area spirit their families to safety in Moscow while the residents were being urged to carry on as if nothing had happened,” she wrote in The Guardian.

“In Pripyat, the satellite city built for Chernobyl workers, windows were left open, children played outside, and gardeners dug their allotments.” 

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov Sky UK Ltd/HBO

The show provides lessons for today

Chernobyl's lasting message is that we would do well to listen to experts, but also not to take everything we're told for granted.

“The message in general is listen to the scientists and don’t ride roughshod over their warnings, because the consequences are dire. And that’s exactly what we’re doing at the moment,” Emily Watson, who plays scientist Ulana Khomyuk in the series told The Scotsman.

“Scientists say we have 12 years to reverse and slow global warming otherwise we reach a point of no return. And hey-ho, what’s happening? It’s getting worse. Nobody’s doing anything, a lot of talk, no action.” 

Craig Mazin told Television magazine, that rather than saying that nuclear power must be banned, he wanted the show to get people to question their relationship with the truth. “There is a global war on the truth – we’re in the middle of it right now,” he said.

“I want people to experience the cost of going along with the lie, and watch what happens, to people’s bodies, to people they love, their governments. I want them to see what happens to the planet.”

Creator Craig Mazin goes behind the scenes

Watch the show's creator talk about how he wrote and researched the series, below.

What the critics said

As well as receiving widespread acclaim from critics on both sides of the Atlantic, Chernobyl became the highest-rated series ever on IMDb, pushing Planet Earth 2 to second place.

“This is TV that doesn't just get you thinking, it stops you sleeping,” wrote the BBC’s Arts editor Will Gompertz.

The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson called Chernobyl “masterful television, as stunning as it is gripping, and it is relentless in its awful tension, refusing to let go even for a second”.

An unmissable television event,” is how Mashable’s Proma Khosla described it, “but it is one that will harrow you, a horror story in the guise of a historical docudrama. Each second is riddled with nauseous anxiety. Knowing how this story ends does not in any way lessen the terror of watching it unfold in real time.”

“It's prestige TV, yes, but this is also a seriously horrifying take on a unique and insidious poison that lingers in the air over the site to this day - and will for centuries to come,” wrote GQ’s Tom Philip.

“If there's anything pleasant about Chernobyl, it's the show's wall-to-wall excellent acting, which not only shines from the likes of Harris and Stellan Skarsgård, but manages to entirely avoid one of the major pitfalls of historical adaptations: fake accents.”

Watch Chernobyl on NOW TV.

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