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Recommended: Meltdown: Three Mile Island on Netflix

Director Kief Davidson's gripping examination of America's worst nuclear disaster is both a hero's story and a cautionary tale.
  • A screnshot from Meltdown: Three Mile Island (Photo: Netflix)
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    Meltdown: Three Mile Island | Netflix
    Historical Docuseries (4 Episodes) | TV-MA

    What's Meltdown: Three Mile Island About?

    From the day of the disaster itself to the whistleblower who likely averted an even worse catastrophe, this series spins gripping drama from the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. 

    Who's involved?

    • Director Kief Davidson was Oscar nominated for his short documentary Open Heart, about Rwandan children trying to get vital surgery. He also helmed A Lego Brickumentary, which uses cheeky animation to tell the toy company's story. Meltdown is obviously closer in tone to the former, but Davidson draws on the audience-pleasing instincts of the latter to present his story as a thriller. 
    • Prestige producer Michael Shamberg (Erin Brockovich, The Big Chill) serves as executive producer.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    Don't be fooled by the series' first 15 minutes, which are marred by cheesy recreations of anxious-looking Pennsylvanians watching news reports and even hokier depictions of heavily sideburned technicians racing around the plant. Once the basics of the disaster have been established, Meltdown roars to life as it tracks the subsequent cover-ups, incompetence, and greed that allowed the fallout (both literal and metaphorical) to get exponentially worse.

    Most captivating are the stories of the everyday people who lived near the plant or worked there. Many of them became activists after they realized the United States came within thirty minutes of an apocalyptic event, and several are interviewed here.

    At the center is Richard Parks, who was working on the cleanup and went public with proof that it was being colossally mishandled. 40 years later, he still has the righteous, eloquent anger of someone who placed his duty to humanity above his personal comfort, and he comes across as an honest-to-god folk hero. Davidson leans into his protagonist's fundamental decency, which culminates in a remarkable moment between Parks and a woman who lived near the plant during the meltdown.

    But that's not sugarcoating. Neither Parks nor the series pretends that the damage of Three Mile Island has been undone, and Lake Barrett, who was part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at the time, doesn't help matters by sitting down for his own denial-heavy interview. The painful facts, coupled with Parks's astonishing valor, are what make the show so absorbing.

    Pairs well with

    • HBO won Outstanding Limited Series at the 2018 Emmys for Chernobyl, its gripping dramatization of the Russian nuclear disaster in 1986. (Streams on HBO Max.)
    • Veep, also streaming on HBO Max, offers a funnier, though no less furious, take on how venal leaders can ruin it for everyone.
    • The China Syndrome, the 1979 movie starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon, opened just a few days before Three Mile Island, and it eerily predicted much of what happened. (Rent it on Amazon, YouTube or Apple TV.)

  • Meltdown: Three Mile Island
    All four episodes premiere on Netflix Wednesday, May 4.
    Starring: Richard Parks and Lake Barrett.
    Directed by: Kief Davidson.