Chernobyl is a series that’s had a lot of critical acclaim, and rightly so. It is absolutely gutting, riveting, and sobering. In six episodes it lays out the tragedy of the meltdown of the chernobyl reactor and the valiant attempts of the men and women who gave their lives to contain it.
The greatest strength of the series is the matter-of-fact and undramatic way it portrays the story and the characters. The two main characters of the series, nuclear scientist Valery Legasov and bureaucrat Boris Shcherbina, aren’t even introduced until the second episode, the first episode devoted to simply following the horrific moments following the initial reactor explosion and the scramble of the technicians on site to understand what happened. This low-key, naturalistic, and unsentimental tone make the events that unfold throughout the series all the more chilling.
Horror at The Heart
That chilling tone is due to the fact that Chernobyl is at times as much a horror series as a drama. Like any good horror story Chernobyl has a monster at the heart of it: radiation. In the modern world, fear of radiation is nowhere as palpable as it was during the cold war, but Chernobyl brings it roaring back, creates a skin tingling horror every time a geiger begins to tick on screen. As Hitchcock once famously wrote, tension isn’t a bomb exploding beneath a table; it’s a bomb ticking away beneath a table where the people sitting at it don’t know it’s there. Radiation in the series operates along the same principle; it’s impact not an explosion, but the horror of it’s invisible yet pervasive nature, a poison seeping into your body and destroying it. Early in the series Legasov explains the health consequences of those most directly exposed to radiation:
“Ionizing radiation tears the cellular structure apart. The skin blisters, turns red then black. This is followed by a latency period; the immediate effects subside and the patient appears to be recovering, healthy, even. This usually only lasts for a day or two, then the cellular damage begins to manifest. The bone marrow dies. The immune system fails. The organs and soft tissue begin to decompose. The arteries and veins spill open like sieves to the point where you can’t even administer morphine for the pain which is… unimaginable. Within three days to three weeks you’re dead.”
More than just horror though, there’s a deep critique in Chernobyl of how the Soviet Union handled the disaster, and the way in which general institutional failure can cause catastrophic damage. Because of the unsentimental tone of the series the message never becomes maudlin, but in Chernobyl there is a clear distinction between right and wrong: between the selflessness of those willing to sacrifice everything to protect others, and those who are more invested in protecting their pride and the pride of their institutions than doing what is right by the people actually in those institutions.
Based on the Garth Ennis comic book, the premise of The Boys is simple: what if superheros were jerks and corporatized and caused a lot of collateral damage. When passive everyman nerd Hughie’s girlfriend is splattered by a superhero in a rush, he’s recruited by rough edged ex-FBI agent Billy Butcher, onto a team to take down all the ‘supes’.
The premise is fascinating, but The Boys often feels frustratingly constrained by it’s comic book origin, and specifically Garth Ennis’ sophomoric understanding of morality, character, violence, and sex. The supes in The Boys aren’t so much bad because of structural or institutional reasons, or simply the implications of the power imbalance that would necessarily yawn open between normal people and supes, but are evil because of personal foibles and narcism and non traditional sexual desires.
That last point may seem a little strange, but The Boys is suspiciously interested in the sex lives of the supes. Worse, it often uses their non standard or ‘deviant’ sexual interests to signpost their moral degeneration and hypocrisy. The two are sometimes explicitly entwined; at one point one of the female supes accidentally and graphically crushes the head of a man while having sex with him. Not only is the linking of sexual deviancy to moral deviancy kind of gross, it’s also just lazy writing.
What makes The Boys half work is just how well cast it is: Karl Urban takes a ridiculous character and gives him enough facets to keep him interesting through eight episodes without softening any of his edges; Tomer Capon who adds a level of pathos to his character Frenchie that raises him from caricature to sympathetic; and Antony Starr plays Homelander, a cross between Superman and Captain America, with shark toothed charisma and pathological intensity that makes him a credible villain.
What also makes the series half work is that the writers often seem to want to add more nuance to the characters than the original conception of them. For example, A-Train (essentially the Flash), a black supe who accidentally kills the main character’s girlfriend in the first ten minutes of the show, towards the later portions of the series becomes a more sympathetic character as it’s revealed just how much emotional strain he’s under to remain the fastest human being alive and also that some of the reason he clings to that identity is the racism he faces when he isn’t the ‘A-Train’.
Flawed From the Start
Unfortunately often these explorations of the characters can feel somewhat aimless and pointless. For example, the Deep starts the series a one note Aquaman joke and sexual assaulter. Throughout the series his insecurity, uselessness on the team, and horror at how humanity treats underwater animals is revealed. It plays as a dark comedy as he tries and fails to make himself relevant and is pushed further and further from the life he wants. His plotline ends with him banished to a nowhere town. It’s internally consistent to his plotline, but never intersects with the main plotline either thematically or conventionally, which begs the question why it was included.
Ultimately, The Boys is promising, but held back by its foundations. It’s a much more interesting concept than it is a series, but it also isn’t a waste of time, and can be fun if you watch it with the right mindset going in.
Photo Credit: IMDB