Three recent 20th century TV dramas (R-084)

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I was fifteen years old when the Chernobyl accident happened. I remember news reports telling us not go out if it was raining in case the rain was radioactive. It may have been an overreaction, but I don’t know having seen the recent HBO TV show on Sky Atlantic.

Chernobyl is made up of five episodes and covers the accident at the nuclear power station in April 1986, some of the lives affected by the radiation, the fight to reveal the truth of what happened and the dangerous cleanup process.

There have been some changes for dramatic purposes but the main facts are there – the hidden problem with the failsafe switch that was supposed to guarantee a safe shutdown should things get out of hand but in fact acted like a detonator turning the already overheating reactor into a nuclear bomb; the slowness of the USSR authorities to face the truth and deal with it in a proper manner; the fight by the scientists and heroic miners involved to stop the radiation spreading disastrously into the water table; and the horrific injuries and deaths caused by exposure to the radioactive debris and dust during the initial fire-fighting, the subsequent clean up and by people in the nearby residential areas going about their business unaware they were being poisoned.

It’s a very good bit of television and when I downloaded it from Sky I also got a companion documentary called The Real Chernobyl (I think) which I guess would be an extra on a DVD or Blu-ray boxed set and was a good watch too. For anyone interested in the disaster then it’s a must-see and someone has told me that there is also an episode of Dark Tourist on Netflix which visits the exclusion zone in Chernobyl.

Catch-22 which recently aired on Channel 4 in the UK is a six episode (dark) comedy drama based on Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel – a book I am a huge fan of.

USAF WWII bombardier Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) is desperate to finish his tour of duty in the exposed nose of a B-25 bomber, but every time he gets close, the number of missions he has to fly is increased. His squadron is based on an island off the coast of Italy. The titular Catch-22, which fell into common usage since the popularity of the novel, says that being willing to fly dangerous combat missions means you must be insane, yet if you request to be grounded on the grounds of insanity you must be sane, and so no such request could be granted.

Heller obviously puts it better:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Yossarian tries various tactics to get out of flying missions trying to exert control over his dangerous position while seeing his friends one-by-one killed in action. He feigns illness, sabotages his intercom, pretends a shrapnel wound to his groin has blown off his balls, and sneaks into the operation briefing tent and moves the string bomb line so it looks like the target in mainland Italy has already been captured.

All his attempts fail sometimes causing more harm than good. I loved the novel but the TV show really brought home the irony of the situation and the building guilt Yossarian has over his own survival while every one but a rapist-murderer he can’t get arrested seems to die around him. There are some dark and desperate themes (it is WWII after all) but still laughs to be had with the strangely named Major Major being promoted to Major just because of an administrative mix up and Milo Minderbender (Daniel David Stewart) building up a business empire by selling anything he can to just about anyone and using USAF resources to do so. Also director George Clooney is excellent on screen in his comedic role as Lieutenant/Colonel/General Scheisskopf.

I wonder if there will be another series based on Heller’s sequel Closing Time.  I wasn’t that impressed by the book compared to the excellent Catch-22, but maybe it will make a good TV show.

Over on Netflix, I recently enjoyed the third season of Stranger Things and second season of Mindhunter. I won’t write here about Stranger Things because its getting plenty of attention from other bloggers and while I enjoyed it, I don’t feel the need to ramble on about it any.

Mindhunter sometimes directed by one of my favourite directors David Fincher (who has ”previous’ with serial killers in the form of the movies Se7en and Zodiac) tells the story of two FBI agents developing the behavioural science unit in the late 1970s by investigating the psychology of murder through interviewing convicted serial killers. It is therefore not for the faint-hearted.

In season two of the three main characters are developed, while Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) pretty much remains the same as in season one.  FBI agent and Ford’s partner in the unit, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) has serious family issues to juggle with his demanding job, especially when the get a new super-keen boss following the (forced) retirement of their previous boss. Psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) gets into a troublesome relationship with a barmaid when she’s not trying to continue the unit’s research while Ford and Tench are dragged away to work on an active case involving the murder of almost twenty black children.

One of the episodes features an interview with Charles Manson played brilliantly by Damon Herriman. There is no real reason why the behavioural science unit should interview Manson (since, while he orchestrated several murders, he did not kill anyone himself) and it seems like the new boss gets them to do it to impress those above him to continue to fund the unit. There are some good references to the Helter Skelter theory which Manson denies in the interview leaving Tench pissed off and Ford acting like a simpering fanboy.

The unit is still on the trail of the BTK killer – Dennis Rader named himself the BTK killer (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”). he killed ten people from 1974 to 1991, in the Wichita, Kansas. In the TV show the BTK story is a slow-burner subplot where the viewer gets snippets of his ongoing development as a serial killer. It shows a certain amount of ambition from the producers of the show to include the storyline and I hope that they do get to cover the investigation and eventual capture of Rader in subsequent seasons. Mindhunter with its rather slow pacing and character development is not for everyone, but I am really enjoying it.

 

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