It’s the sublime vs the ridiculous, as entertainment editor John Turnbull checks out a couple of small-screen productions, the emotionally harrowing Chernobyl and the riotously profane The Boys.
Created by Craig Mazin (2019)
On the 26th of April, 1986, there was a massive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, near the city of Pripyat in the Ukraine in the then USSR. The explosion occurred during a safety test on a Soviet designed reactor, and the resulting cover-up was an attempt to preserve Russian pride during the early days of the Cold War. It is estimated that around 3,000 people died as a result of the explosion, with a significant increase in the incidence of cancer throughout the region.
Produced by HBO, this 5 part dramatisation of the events following the explosion is both exceptionally well-made and incredibly hard to watch. Big name actors are barely recognizable, performances tend towards the understated, and the art direction is brutally accurate to the Soviet 1980s. A basic knowledge of history imbues the early episodes with an overwhelming sense of dread, which slowly turns to a simmering anger as layers of bureaucracy and ass-covering lead to an increasing death toll.
Told from multiple perspectives, key characters include pregnant Lyudmilla (Jessie Buckley), wife of a dying first responder, scientists Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), who work together against seemingly insurmountable odds and a lurking KGB, pragmatic party member Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) and petty plant commander Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), the man ultimately blamed for the explosion.
If you’re old enough to remember the Chernobyl disaster from a firsthand perspective, this dramatisation may well have a greater impact than those learning about it for the first time. I remember being 12-years-old and hearing about the explosion on the TV news, wondering idly if we were about to enter a world of giant, irradiated Soviet cockroaches.
Created by Eric Kripke, Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (2019)
Based on the comic book by Garth Ennis (creator of Preacher) and Darrick Robinson, The Boys tells the story of a bunch of hyper-violent misfits on a mission to kill the world’s foremost superhero team. Of course, this being a Garth Ennis joint, the superheroes are the bad guys and the violent misfits are the good guys.
Set in a universe where superheroes are commonplace, the most powerful heroes in the world are corporate-sponsored The Seven, a sort of Justice League/Avengers analogue. Led by the ultra-powerful, yet increasingly psychopathic Homelander (a spectacular Antony Starr), the team includes the closeted Wonder Woman equivalent Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), drug addicted speedster A-Train (Jessie T Usher), mysterious Batman-esque Black Noir (Nathan Mitchell) and creepy loser fish-man The Deep (Chace Crawford). The only likeable member of the team is newcomer Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a young hero who rapidly has her illusions of becoming a genuine force for good shattered.
On the other side of the game we have The Boys, led by Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher, an ex-CIA operative with an accent that changes more frequently than his clothes. Butcher is joined by gun-runner Frenchie (Tomer Capon), group conscience Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso), trauma survivor The Female (Karen Fukuhara) and relative innocent Hughie (Jack Quaid), who is drawn into the group when his girlfriend is gruesomely killed by an out of control A-Train.
While Preacher took a couple of seasons to get the tone and characters right, The Boys is fantastic straight out of the gate. Amazon have clearly spent a lot of money on the production and the superhero elements of the show look great, but it’s the characters that really make The Boys work. As sworn enemies, Antony Starr’s Homelander and Karl Urban’s Butcher are a perfect study in mirror characters — both willing to go to extremes to achieve their vision of justice. Hughie and Starlight provide a viewer intro to the madness, while small cameos like Hayley Joel Osment as reality show psychic Mesmer, Billy Zane as himself and Simon Pegg as Hughie’s dad will make comic book readers smile.
While it would seem that Chernobyl and The Boys have almost nothing in common, both series effectively play with emotion, and both benefit from being watched in certain mood states. If you’re feeling a little down, perhaps harboring secret fantasies of punching your boss or that neo-Nazi at the bus stop, then the hyper-stylistic violence and dark humour of The Boys may be just what you need.
If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood to be taken on a brilliantly acted yet harrowing emotional journey that you know isn’t going to end well, then Chernobyl should fit the bill nicely.
Chernobyl is now streaming on Foxtel, while The Boys can be found on Amazon Prime Video.
The Boys: 9/10
Books by John Turnbull are available on Amazon and Kindle, including supernatural thriller Damnation’s Flame; action/romance Reaper, black comedy City Boy and travel guidebook Bar Trek: Europe. Damnation's Flame by John Turnbull is also available in paperback in the IA store HERE (free postage).
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