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Listen: ‘Chernobyl’ EP Craig Mazin on Making a ‘Non-Traditional’ Disaster Show

Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s episode, senior features editor Danielle Turchiano talks with Craig Mazin, executive producer of HBO’s “Chernobyl,” which premieres May 6.

The five-part miniseries is a dramatization of the nuclear disaster that took place just outside the titular Ukrainian town in 1986, and the far-reaching aftermath of the event.

Mazin, who created and wrote the show, says he deliberately set out to stage the explosion at the very beginning, without a “drumroll please” moment, in order to get at the human side of the tragedy.

“To me, the explosion is actually the least interesting thing that happened,” Mazin says. “I wanted it to occur right away and in an odd way, sort of quasi-silently, because everything in this show is from the perspectives of human beings and we will eventually get to the place at the very end of the story where we show the day of and the leading up to which is very traditional. But because I was so committed to not making a traditional disaster show, I didn’t want to do anything structurally the way that disaster shows do.”

Chernobyl” shows the vast web of lies, which permeated every level of the Soviet Union’s command chain, that led to the incident and the initial attempt to cover it up.

Even though the event is now one of the most studied and notorious events in recent world history, Mazin says he had to grapple with all kinds of “conflicting accounts” of how the disaster played out.

“I always went for the less crazy one, I always defaulted to the less dramatic because the things that we know for sure happened are so inherently dramatic. I never wanted to undercut that in any way,” he says. “When you are taking an event that has unfolded over two years and compressing it into five hours, you are going to make some changes, but our rule was always this: If we’re going to make a change, it has to be for that reason, to be able to narratively convey this at all, but never to enhance drama.”

The ensemble cast for the show is led Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the scientist who helped expose the disaster and led the responses, Stellan Skarsgard as Borys Shcherbyna, and Emily Watson as Ulyana Khomyuk.

When it came to the casting process, Mazin reveals he lucked out in a way that most writers and executive producers only dream of.

“The casting process was that I wrote it for Emily Watson and she said yes. The same casting process for Legasov, I wrote it for Jared Harris and he said yes, and then I wrote Borys Shcherbyna for Stellan Skarsgard and he said yes. This will never happen again to me in my life,” he says.

One potential stumbling block for the show is that none of the characters come across as inherently likeable, however, likability was not a factor that troubled Mazin.

“I hope that by the end of it people see the humanity in everybody involved…I was never concerned about likeable and in fact I think likeable is boring. Disagreeable is the term I prefer, I think they were all to a certain extent disagreeable people and I like that,” he says. “What I did struggle with at times was the level of denial, the factual record shows people behaving in a way that is so wildly deep in denial, that I struggled with how to present it. Likability wasn’t the problem, believability was the problem.”

Later in the show, critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke discuss Netflix’s “Dead To Me” and the Starz series “The Spanish Princess.” Finally, TV reporter Joe Otterson talks about the latest pilot season buzz.

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