Two of the best shows of the summer are also the hardest to watch.
Both explore stylized versions of two of the darkest moments of the 1980s.
In HBO’s “Chernobyl,” the audience witnesses how people, from the highest of executives to lowly plant workers, reacted to an event the world has never seen before: the explosion of a nuclear reactor.
Netflix’s “When They See Us” follows a group of teenage boys who would later become known as the Central Park Five. Their predicament is one that occurs more often: black men being wrongfully accused of a crime.
Both are heartbreaking, anxiety-inducing masterworks. They capture catastrophic incidents that resulted from ignorance, hubris and stubbornness.
Neither wastes much time setting up characters. Within its first 10 minutes, the explosion at Chernobyl has occurred. From there, the audience is placed in the shoes of employees. We don’t know any of the backgrounds of these people. We can only judge them on how they react to an event of unimaginable horror. We see how the bigwigs cover their butts, hoping the world literally wouldn’t catch wind of the explosion. Meanwhile, the scientists and citizens are shut out of the conversation.
“When They See Us” opens with the group of kids getting ready to go out in the city. They go on dates to New York City pizza places, cause mischief and want to party. After their arrest, they become painfully real people caught in an unthinkable series of injustices.
We know the bare bones of each story. A nuclear reactor's core overheated, causing a steam explosion. Countless people were exposed to massive amounts of radiation.
The Central Park Five were tried and found guilty of beating and sexually assaulting a jogger in New York City. Politicians like Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan called for their deaths. More than a decade later, after losing their teenage years behind bars, they were exonerated.
For most of my life, Chernobyl was only mentioned as a punchline. The Central Park Five was known as an unfortunate fluke of the justice system.
Both series show that more than 30 years later, these topics are still relevant. The signs of disaster in the world are still being ignored because of pride, exceptionalism and ignorance. The justice system is still broken, and innocent people spend their lives in jail or prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Both series put names and personalities to those incidents, even if the events are heightened and composed and some of the characters are amalgamations of several different people.
We see how young, inexperienced people were put in charge of a plant they had no business or desire to run. We follow innocent men, even knowing they will eventually be cleared of wrongdoing, as they get beaten down in prison and society, with a felony rape conviction attached to their names.
With the benefit of hindsight, we see what a dark mark each has left on history, with the hope that it won’t be repeated.
— Andrew Gaug | St. Joe Live