A moment ago in the second episode of Apple TV+ Five days at the Memorial when a man invested in the private medical industry asks a colleague if Hurricane Katrina is actually good for business. The man prefaces this statement with fake guilt, trying to suggest that he hates to even ask this question, but that business is business. In reality, we know he wants the real answer, that the end result is whatever interests him. Basically, he wants to know if it is possible to profit from a disaster. Likewise, one might ask, is it possible to “enjoy” a television dramatized version of real events, while the wounds are still fresh for many?
It’s an interesting question, and one that Five days at the Memorial struggles in its own way. Your mileage may vary as the carnage and moral compromises pile up in the eight episodes of the limited series, but there’s no denying that John Ridley and Carlton Cuse, who wrote the entire series and directed the first five episodes, have taken great care to ensure that the horrific true story, told in Sheri Fink’s book of the same name, is treated with respect and complexity.
The series premiere is an absolutely punishing introduction to this specific Hurricane Katrina story. As the episode begins, we’re introduced to everyone who works at Memorial and a second private care unit, LifeCare, in the same building. Everything is brilliantly lit, every hallway and every room is a beacon of functional and empathetic healthcare. Outside, however, the storm is intensifying and the gravity of the situation is rapidly changing.
Five days at the Memorial
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Cuse and Ridley do a wonderful job of raising the tension. After all, we already know what’s coming; we know what this story is about – the first episode uses a government inquiry into the 45 hospital deaths during the titular “five days” as a framing device for the drama – but rather than mitigating the impact, our knowledge reinforces actually fear. We know this idyllic vision cannot last. Before long, the hospital is badly hit by the hurricane, and some gnarly CGI effects transport us into disaster movie territory, culminating in a crazed rescue across an overhanging bridge between the two hospitals.
This is just the beginning. As Memorial manages to weather the storm and the second episode deals more with the interpersonal lives of its main characters, soon the levees break, the hospital loses all electricity and drinking water due to flooding, and staff are forced to make harrowing decisions to try to save their patients during an unprecedented disaster.
While the series at times fashions its characters as archetypes, with stories and motivations that feel outdated and superficial – whether it’s the first episode reveal of a pregnant nurse, a clichéd mother-daughter relationship or the rather bland romance involving Vera Farmiga Pou’s Dr. Anna – it’s never enough to ruin the show’s gripping grip. In the first five episodes, each covering a single day of the disaster that claimed 45 lives, the viewer is firmly anchored in the claustrophobic world of the barely functioning hospital.
If you’re looking for some kind of subtlety regarding the show’s theme or cultural and political ideas, you won’t find it here; if you’ve seen Ridley’s previous work, the anthology series American crimeyou know he is known for painting in broad strokes. Five days at the Memorial is very on the nose and filled with exposition when it comes to exposing that various levels of government failure that led to the deaths at Memorial, and while the information overload is sometimes too much, the The show is never slow to return its focus on the characters and the impossible decisions they must make as they attempt to evacuate patients from a flooded hospital.
It’s there that Five days at the Memorial shines. If he’s too pushy in his look at bureaucratic failure – something HBO Treme previously dramatized with far more care and nuance — the series makes up for it by telling a very human story. It’s impossible to watch these eight episodes without thinking about the decisions you would make or how human resilience must often compensate for institutional failure in the face of disaster. Five days at the Memorial is by no means a hopeful show, but it is a show that strives to use tragedy to tell a more complex existential story about everyday human beings who are pushed to their physical limits and morals.
Firsts: Friday, August 12 on Apple TV+
Who is in: Vera Farmiga, Adepero Oduye, Cornelius Smith Jr., Julie Ann Emery, Cherry Jones
Who is behind: John Ridley and Carlton Cuse
For fans of: Emergency room, ChernobylDisaster films à la Roland Emmerich
How many episodes we watched: 6 out of 8