The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina so precisely crystallized a set of seemingly unfixable problems with this country that it’s surprising TV, in an era of re-examining recent history, is only now getting around to depicting it in fictionalized form. It’s not for lack of trying: Ryan Murphy had previously proposed multiple takes on the story, one with Annette Bening starring as Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then one with Sarah Paulson starring as Dr. Anna Pou. These never came together, leaving a lane open for Pou’s story, as told in Sheri Fink’s book “Five Days at Memorial,” to get adapted for Apple TV+.
And while this series, produced by Carlton Cuse and John Ridley, is accomplished in many ways, viewers may well pine for what might have been; the willing-to-be-crass bigness of Murphy’s approach and his eagerness to grasp at Big Themes suits the astonishing failures that led to Katrina in 2005, and the sad truths about this country’s willingness to toss away Black life that it revealed. Cuse and Ridley take a more measured approach, telling a story that feels strangely muted even as it addresses a catastrophe.
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Here, Vera Farmiga plays Pou, a physician who is stuck at a powerless and flooded Memorial Medican Center in New Orleans. She eventually will face legal consequences for allegedly euthanizing patients as the wait for help ticked on. The show makes all too clear just how desperate the situation was: As the wake of Katrina continues, with Black communities in New Orleans left waterlogged and trapped without meaningful intervention from the government, Pou is among those enduring miserable conditions and faced with unthinkable choices. The show’s first five episodes (of its eight) are a powerful crescendo of agony, as depicted both in shots in which heat and stench seem to come through the television and in contemporaneous news footage, still jarring and heartbreaking years later.
The series effectively marshals tension about events we already know: watching medical professionals show up before the storm, one yearns to jump through the screen to warn them of what’s coming. (As a hospital admin, Cherry Jones effectively sells both the pre-landfall understanding that Katrina would be powerful but not devastating and the growing fear that it might just be the storm of the century.) Early attempts to figure out how, possibly, to use the limited resources of an unprepared facility to deal with a living nightmare are riveting, while, later, the horrors of the dead and dying make the case for Katrina as among the most troubling instances of Americans abandoning our own neediest.
And while Farmiga does an effective job, as well, letting us into the fraying psyche of a doctor pushed past her limit, the story seems increasingly unfocused once the nightmare ends. The investigation into Pou feels scattered — it’s not the story Cuse and Ridley seem most interested in telling, nor the one “Five Days at Memorial” does best. The series ends up coming in for a soft landing after early episodes riveted with emotional and visceral power; the legal consequences faced by the real Pou were of urgent importance to her, obviously, but feel tangential as the one thing this show addressing the nightmare of Katrina ends up being about. (There are moments of power, as in Cornelius Smith Jr.’s Dr. Bryant King emotionally testifying about what he saw as malign forces within the hospital, but they stand out amidst an increasingly draggy series moving farther away from the heart of its story.) Perhaps “Five Days at Memorial” would have been stronger if it had done an unfashionable thing and limited its running time; a show more tightly dialed in to the events that happened at Memorial, and not on a legal aftermath that wends away from the heart of Pou’s story, would have been substantially stronger.
“Five Days at Memorial” will premiere its first three episodes on Apple TV+ on Friday, August 12, with new episodes to follow weekly.
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