Writing for TV: Chernobyl Pilot
Writing for TV is a challenging effort that many would argue require more of a writer than a full-length feature film would. Although it’s easier to flesh out longer-length ideas in a longer-formed television series, miniseries are an entirely separate ordeal that requires a finer amount of detail and preparation.
The 2019 miniseries Chernobyl is regarded as one of the best miniseries and received unanimous critical acclaim. Chernobyl, created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, is a historical drama miniseries that revolves around the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the cleanup efforts that followed.
With the acclaim attached to Chernobyl, below will highlight writing for TV and how the Chernobyl pilot is an excellent basis for writing an immaculate pilot script. We’ll discuss the opening with a motif, miniseries, and their investment, the epic scope of the series and the point, horror elements, and characterization. Let’s take a look!
Still from 'Chernobyl'. Photo credit: Screenrant
Opening With the Motif
Chernobyl’s biggest strength is its ability to craft a stunningly horrific disaster based on events that transpired in real life. As troubling and sadistic as some horror films are, a series based on reality has an even more chilling effect for those who watch. Knowing it happened in the past and can happen again has a more significant response than any creepy horror flick.
The film’s motif is primarily based on the cost of lies, with Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) dismissing the severity of the explosion even though the core exploded and is exposed. Forbidding evacuation and suspending communication furthers the lie and attempt to cover up the disaster. The script opens beautifully with the motif of what the cost of lying is:
A man's voice, tinny, over audio cassette hiss.
What is the cost of lies?
Asking a singular question like that strikes a chord in what’s to come in the series. If Dyatlov took the explosion seriously and didn’t dismiss its severity, how would the events transpire? It makes the audience think about what could happen in their own life and how a lie could shape it, a representation of the butterfly effect.
Miniseries Are A Huge Investment
Part of the reason miniseries is such a massive investment is due to them not having the luxury of time. A miniseries can’t grow on an audience like Bojack Horseman, or The Sopranos did. It has to be immediately engaging, producing significantly more pressure on the writer to deliver an excellent pilot script.
As a writer, it’s vital for you to ask yourself if it’s worth making into a miniseries. A show like Chernobyl thrives as a miniseries because it’d be too dragged on in a standard show format. If it’s a big enough idea that wouldn’t benefit from extended seasons, then you should consider making it a miniseries.
Miniseries Require an Epic Scope
In the modern era, a miniseries can’t be done unless it has an epic scope to it. No one will invest their time in a miniseries if it’s a slow abstract character piece. More extended fleshed-out television series are meant for that role, whereas a miniseries is meant to make a significant impact right away.
Chernobyl is the perfect scope for a miniseries. Most people have an understanding of the disaster. Still, no one has a definitive explanation of what happened except for experts in the field. Taking a recognizable event, making it available in a short series, and creating high moments of conflict and intensity create an excellent miniseries.
What’s the Point?
When discussing the idea of taking a story from the past and putting it out today, you have to ask yourself what the point of it is. Regardless of whether your miniseries idea is a historical drama, the script of a miniseries centers around what the point is. With Chernobyl, it’s a series based around lies and the danger of lying in such a significant way.
Although the Chernobyl disaster occurred in 1986, its theme of the cost of lying is equally as prevalent today as it was back then. How will our future be affected if we don’t hold people in control accountable for their actions? Could there be a worse disaster than Chernobyl waiting if we ignore the danger of lying?
Combining Horror with Reality
Chernobyl is written like a horror to convey the danger of a real-life disaster. The pilot is especially built and shot like a horror film, relying on many of the horror conventions we’re used to as an audience. Combining the two is a potent tool that the pilot uses to its advantage.
Characters Still Matter in Historical Dramas
What Chernobyl does well is it doesn’t rely on history to tell its story. The story understands it’s a miniseries and lets its characters drive it. The story is primarily centered on Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), a scientist committed to truth and a lifelong politician on the opposite end of its theme of telling the truth.