Five Days at Memorial, Apple TV Plus review – one of the most harrowing TV dramas of the year

One of the most harrowing and heartbreaking TV series of the year isn’t a work of fiction. New Apple TV Plus mini-series Five days at the Memorial is based on Sheri Fink’s award-winning book about the disaster that struck a hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans was without power and running water for several days. Before it could be completely evacuated, more than 40 patients died.

The first five episodes (of eight) are almost entirely devoted to presenting a detailed account of day-to-day events, from when the storm initially hits and the levee-breaking deluge overruns the hospital, until triage of patients for rescue. The pre-credit introductory scenes, set two weeks after the disaster, switch to the inquest into the deaths at Memorial. Several of them are believed to have been euthanized with lethal doses of morphine; a doctor and two nurses were charged, but never convicted, with second-degree murder.

Framing device aside, showrunners John Ridley and Carlton Cuse largely keep the storytelling direct and uncluttered, leaving room for the scale of suffering and the weight of ethical dilemmas. The personal lives of characters such as Dr. Anna Pou (one of the indicted, played by Vera Farmiga) and hospital incident commander Susan Mulderick (a remarkable Cherry Jones) are sufficiently described but largely kept peripheral. . This is not so much a narrative oversight as a recognition that this is less a story about specific individuals than a broader study of human instinct, frailty and endurance in extreme circumstances.

The series does a remarkable job of bridging the distance between the viewer and disaster, immersing us in the hellish reality of crisis and chaos at Memorial. Archival footage and quick cuts capture the disorienting violence of the storm. Later, as the hospital descends into an inhospitable wasteland, the rough steering conveys sweltering heat, darkness, and the fetor of sewage and decay. Rarely has a disaster reimagined for the screen aroused so little euphoria and so much terror.

But Five days is more than just a convincing exercise in re-enactment. It’s an unwavering, sought-after spectacle that confronts us with impossible questions about the value of life – whether one is ever worth more than another, or worth anything when reduced to insurmountable pain.

It’s easier to answer the question of how things got to the point where Memorial staff had to weigh up who to save and who to let die. A hurricane may be a so-called “act of God” but, like the Chernobyl, the series offers a damning account of how human failures in organization, bureaucracy, and governance have fatal consequences. From the hospital’s woeful lack of preparedness to the delayed and inadequate response from construction cooperation, city officials and the White House, there is an agonizing sense that some deaths and devastation could have been avoided. As one doctor interviewed later put it, “It only took five days for everything to fall apart.”

★★★★☆

Three episodes on Apple TV Plus starting August 12. New episodes released every week

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