In May, HBO scored an unexpected hit with Chernobyl, a five-part miniseries about how the world’s worst nuclear disaster unfolded. Like any dramatization of a real-world incident, it takes some liberties to make the story fit into television’s dramatic structure. That’s where the show’s companion podcast comes in: it features Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’s Peter Sagal as he interviews series creator Craig Mazin about the production of the show, why they had to make some changes, and what really happened in the real disaster.
Chernobyl is a compelling show, exploring how the disaster occurred and its aftermath. It opens not with the explosion of the infamous nuclear reactor, but of a man, Valery Legasov (the head of the USSR’s investigation into the incident, played by Jared Harris) musing about the importance of truth just before he hangs himself. After flashing back to the moment when the plant explodes, the series spends the next five episodes through the immediate aftermath of the disaster, how the Soviet Union undertook some unfathomable measures to contain the radiation, and how Soviet culture essentially created the perfect environment for the meltdown to occur.
While you certainly don’t need to listen to the podcast to enjoy the series, it’s an indispensable companion for the show. After mentioning something about the accents of the show’s actors on Twitter, the response was immediate: listen to the podcast, they explain everything. The podcast covers a wide range of topics, exploring how the producers were able to convey the complexities of nuclear engineering, stories that they weren’t able to get into the show, and musings on the philosophical takeaways from the series.
The first thing that popped into my head when I began listening to the podcast was “How on Earth did the host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me get involved in a show about Chernobyl?” It’s a decidedly off-brand topic for Sagal, who’s probably best known for hosting NPR’s comedy show for the last two decades. “It’s just dumb luck in my case,” Sagal told me, noting that he first came across Mazin when the latter went on Twitter in 2016 to complain about his college roommate, Senator Ted Cruz. “He and I sort of exchanged messages, and it turned out that he listened to my show. We met in real life in the fall of last year when Wait Wait did a show at the Greek Theater.”
“It was shortly after that that he wrote to me and said ‘look, my miniseries is coming out in the spring, and I really want to do a podcast. I’m looking for someone to host it with me, this sort of interlocutor to ask me questions. And I was like ‘Can I pull a Dick Cheney and nominate myself?’ He said ‘I was hoping you’d do that.’ And that’s all it really was.”
Sagal outlines the purpose of the podcast in the opening of the series: where the show came from, how it was produced, and how closely it tracks with real history. In that first episode, Mazin explains that “the one [reason] for me to do this from the jump was the chance to set the record straight about what we do that is very accurate to history, what we do that is a little bit sideways to it, and what we do to compress or change it,” and that as the show is largely about the value of truth, he felt that it was important to cover it in some medium.
Sagal said that while they had some items that they planned out to discuss ahead of time, each episode was a “great, freewheeling conversation,” and that he was given free rein to discuss whatever he wanted about the show. To prepare, he watched the show twice and compared each episode against the screenplays, and came up with a series of questions to ask Mazin.
Going into the show, Sagal says that he “didn’t know anything about Chernobyl,” a perspective shared by many viewers. “I like to think that the end result is more accessible with me as a naïve [stand in] asking him questions rather than a fellow expert on Chernobyl. We’ve all heard discussions in which both people are so steeped in the topic that it just goes way beyond a lay person’s ability to understand the issue.”
While fictionalized in places, the show does serve as a starting for the broader audience to understand what happened at Chernobyl in 1986, and how it was far more dangerous than most people suspected. “I had no idea about the extraordinary efforts that went into containing it, and like everyone else, I had no idea what life in the Soviet Union was like at that point.” The series sees people taking remarkable efforts: power plant employees going down into the reactor to try and stop the meltdown or draftees going up onto the roof to shovel off radioactive debris. But is also shows how people made the decisions that ultimately led to the meltdown: plant officials pushed for unsafe tests, and employees pushed the buttons, even knowing there could be consequences.
A point that stuck with Sagal was that “how the show illustrates how extraordinary difficult it is to be heroic. The idea that any given situation — and the reason we believe this is because what movies and TV constantly tell us — doing the right thing is obvious, easy, and you’ll be rewarded for it. Life doesn’t In fact, doing the right thing — being honest, open and responsible — is really, really, really hard.”
Broadly speaking, podcasts have exploded in the last couple of years because of the medium’s ability to convey compelling real-world narratives (think shows like This American Life’s Serial, for example), new versions of radio plays, or commentary by fans. While there are a number of after shows or companion podcasts for TV shows, as an official release from HBO, The Chernobyl Podcast walks a fine line between a promotional project and a genuine special feature for fans.
Sagal notes that while he’s aware that the show is part of the publicity effort for the project, he hopes that his status as an independent figure helps lend some credibility to the podcast as something that goes beyond mere publicity. “I represent — I hope — in an effective way, not the company’s interest, but the perspective of the viewers. I like watching good TV shows, and I got a chance to talk with the creator of the show about how and why he did it, questions I hope other viewers might have.”
By Andrew Liptak