Written and directed by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Carlton Cuse (Lost), and adapted from a book by Sheri Fink, Apple TV+’s Hurricane Katrina drama Five Days at Memorial feels emblematic of larger problems with the prestige TV format—sharpened contradictions made ever more apparent by the streaming system beginning to devour itself.
The show could have been a 2-and-a-half-hour movie, a 6-episode miniseries, or—if one were insistent on holding on to all the side plots and fleshing out all the allusions here—a longer, 22-episode epic. But nothing runs that long for one season unless it had bigger plans and got canceled, and restraint is in as short supply as water rises and hope dwindles in a hospital hit by a hurricane. So we get eight episodes that should have been less: five on the tragedy (three that I can discuss per embargoes) and three about the ensuing investigation.
Five Days at Memorial’s unearned length enables its tone and character focus to regrettably shift halfway through. It goes from being a survival drama with disaster and light horror elements to a police procedural. But to call it indulgent would be unsympathetic to the real-life victims of the tragedy it covers: 45 patients died at Memorial in the wake of the storm, and the show is concerned with whether these deaths were preventable or premeditated. Still, there are lines, scenes, and characters the show could do without. In the end, it is a piece of art in service to telling the truth about a historical moment. But, like so many pieces of intentional entertainment before it, Five Days at Memorial is bogged down by self-imposed structural constraints.
The series is about the aftermath of a tragedy. Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation on the city of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast, further compounded by state incompetence and, in the case of Memorial Hospital, corporate malfeasance which led to 45 people dying or being killed there. The show does an excellent job conveying the dire circumstances enabled by the levees breaking after the initial storm surge. It feels frightening before and during the storm, and exhausting afterward. It highlights the hard work of doctors and nurses to keep people alive amid being essentially abandoned by their corporate owners and three levels of government. Archival and documentary footage is spliced into the dramatization to ground the event.
As depicted by Five Days at Memorial, the lack of prompt and precise government response will make viewers red-in-the-face angry, or at least very confused after repeatedly delayed promises from the federal government met with further disarray on the state and local levels. One thing the show reaffirms and reiterates is the general theme that no one was in charge. It feels pathetic, enraging, and unforgivable that a nation with so much wealth and power could abandon its own citizens to this tragedy. Zooming in on Memorial Hospital specifically and only using other iconic imagery (people sitting on top of their houses trying to flag down helicopters, or crowding into the Superdome) as contextual backdrop contributes to themes of isolation and loss.
While the show commits very strongly to making the audience aware of how bad things were, it also has tonal shift problems—not only a few rough cuts with editing but, more importantly, bad musical and script choices. The dialog can feel overwritten and obvious in parts, and the story ultimately has too many angles: basically, one main ensemble, an attached secondary ensemble, and two external pairs that intersect with the main story through different vectors. It very much feels like a book taking a holistic view of things, but is then compressed in a way that misses important context and detail (think Friday Night Lights the book versus Friday Night Lights the movie).
The music is also regrettably trite or over-the-top; scores are rightly intended to evoke feelings, but it only feels cheap or manipulative when done poorly. The score is never memorable, it just generically pulls on your heart strings or, more concerningly, overdoes the hopeful moments. While small triumphs can contribute to the anticipation around how and when things will break bad, the disaster story should probably try to avoid sounding like a high school football movie. Moreover, the theme song (a cover of “Wade in the Water”) was too much—I skipped it in every episode after the first one.
But the thing I found most jaw-droppingly haunting as a creative decision was the first episode just stopping so that Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Vince (Jonathan Cake) could have a date in an unused room before the hurricane starts. I had to pause the show and take stock because I couldn’t believe it was happening. The scene came complete with bad background music that eventually shifts to being diegetic to set Vince up for a joke about cheesy ‘80s ballads. In a show with a lot of fat to trim, it’s easily the most unnecessary scene, mostly existing as an excuse for comeuppance for some nurses that don’t like Anna. So much of the early going that serves to endear the audience to her fails at that, feeling like a distraction from the much more vital work of Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones) trying to establish an emergency plan in a vacuum of corporate or government direction. Her leadership under pressure and changing perspective are the load-bearing beams in the early part of the series.
This higher leadership vacuum is the real story, but there’s little accounting for it. That’s probably historically accurate, but nonetheless unfortunate. Joe Carroll portrays the one suit at Tenet Healthcare (the company operating Memorial Hospital) concerned about what’s happening there, who gets undercut by his immediate superior while trying to find a way to rescue the people at the hospital. He’s told the government will help, but it is evident by the premise that their assistance left a lot to be desired. Five Days at Memorial is a story about a state capture by capital and the ethos of privatization that leads to tragedy: the government is ill-equipped for the situation because it believes private businesses have emergency plans in place; they don’t have those emergency plans in place because financially costly preparation wasn’t prioritized when a worker (Joel Keller as maintenance supervisor Eric Yancovich) brought disaster readiness issues to the administration.
The story implies a rise of social chaos within the hospital, but doesn’t quite pay off what it sets up as far as race- and class-based social animus within the hospital worker ranks. It alludes to how news coverage (including sound and video clips for framing) dealt with the local response to the hurricane to give insight into the feelings of characters such as Cornelius Smith Jr.’s Dr. Bryant King. Even the physical limitations of something like a long-out-of-use helipad are threatening but mostly dissipate.
It’s odd that there are so many ways in which this show misfires but that it still comes across as almost important because of the gravity of the story it’s telling and the strong performances. It is appropriately weighty, effectively conveying drama and tragedy. But its biggest failing is that it sets up this tragedy with all these interesting dynamics, and then ends up using them as a five-episode prologue to a three-episode investigation story that is a thematic dud because of the real-life resolution (if it can even be called that). The story alludes to an ambiguity of circumstances enabled by mismanagement that isn’t properly clarified. It may in fact end up being sort of important—there is, after all, no statute of limitations on murder. But someone should have talked to John Ridley about limitations here.
For all my issues with it, I might watch the series again with my mouse hovering over the scene-skip button. There’s a lean drama miniseries in here mixed with a disaster film, a superfluous love story, and a police investigation. But high-highs and low-lows make it come across confused when it should feel necessary. Five Days at Memorial is an important story that deserved better.
Five Days at Memorial premieres with three episodes on Friday, August 12th, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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