The multi-layered tragedy of Hurricane Katrina gets the Chernobyl treatment in Apple TV+’s Five Days at Memorial, a generally nightmarish, sometimes damning new eight-part limited series sure to stick with viewers who stick with it through its poorly focused home stretch.
Five Days at Memorial benefits from not taking on the responsibility of being a definitive Hurricane Katrina chronicle, for now a distinction held by Spike Lee’s HBO documentaries When The Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. Using Sheri Fink’s 2013 book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital as its source material, the Apple series instead is a snapshot that encompasses many aspects of a catastrophe that blended natural disaster and epic human screw-up. But it’s best to acknowledge it’s only “many” and surely not “all,” even if the series doesn’t always understand its own limitations.
Five Days at Memorial
The Bottom Line
Starts strong but peters out.
Adapted by the powerhouse duo of John Ridley and Carlton Cuse, who, between them, wrote the entire series and directed the first five episodes before sticking Wendey Stanzler with the undercooked closing three, Five Days at Memorial is set primarily in and around a single New Orleans hospital. It’s technically two hospitals: Memorial is/was the main hospital, with an unrelated private facility, LifeCare, on its own dedicated floor. The lack of connection and communication between the two hospitals and their emergency preparedness coordinators — Julie Ann Emery’s Diane Robichaux for LifeCare and Cherry Jones’ Susan Mulderick for Memorial — only compounds the bedlam when it turns out that the specifics on “how to handle a once-in-a-generation storm” aren’t covered in any of their manuals.
As Katrina approaches, hits and then, after the breaching of the levees, becomes a disaster of a different sort and leaves the hospital without power and basically shut off from the world, Five Days at Memorial follows a group of doctors and nurses as they attempt to tend to and evacuate hundreds of patients. As we learn in the opening scene, part of an investigation conducted by Michael Gaston’s Butch and Molly Hager’s Virginia, 45 patients died at Memorial over those five days. Were they victims of the storm or human choices? Negligence or mercy?
There are no easy answers, and for five episodes, one per day in the title, Five Days at Memorial embraces the complexity. Led by tremendous production design that meticulously tracks the hospital’s astonishingly fast decline from bright, sterile and operational to flooded, fetid and thoroughly dysfunctional, the series captures a horrifying downward spiral of misbegotten best intentions and ill-fated judgment calls. Some of the doctors, like W. Earl Brown’s Ewing Cook, come across as slightly imperious, but hardly villainous. Most of the medical professionals, from Diane and Susan to Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Anna Pou and Cornelius Smith Jr.’s Dr. Bryant King, are presented as heroic, if faced with more unbearable and impossible choices than anybody should ever need to make.
They treat the patients with compassion and the series tries to do the same, though I think part of the show’s point may be that when humans are pushed to unimaginable extremes, they just become archetypes. Or maybe Five Days at Memorial just isn’t all that good at giving backstories in ways that aren’t a bit perfunctory and manipulative. Medical dramas inevitably hinge on the horrors of dropping viewers into an environment that none of us want to spend time in under any circumstances, and in this case, it’s a plunge into the worst of the worst. Whatever your particular phobia happens to be — from claustrophobia to the sensory overload of a sealed environment with near-total humidity and no working toilets to more animal endangerment than many will be able to stand — Five Days at Memorial is initially unrelenting, without ever letting you forget how this is just one awful story among many.
A lot of how Ridley and Cuse capture the totality of the trauma outside of Memorial is through news footage from those days, reminders of the tumultuous weather, the submerged streets, the unhoused people. It’s familiar and yet still potent footage, and I like that approach, which seems to say “This is the tragedy you know, but now back to the personal, dramatized tragedy that maybe you don’t.” For some reason, though, the decision was made to also include CG-heavy reenactments, and while they deliver unquestionably jaw-dropping and expensive-looking moments — the roof of the Superdome coming off, the moment of the levee breach — they make the show feel like a Roland Emmerich movie in a way that adds little to the intimacy of the rest of the proceedings.
Then again, the last three episodes suggest that Ridley and Cuse aren’t quite sure what the show is as a whole. Anybody who watched the three seasons of American Crime on ABC knows that Ridley isn’t subtle, but he’s spectacular at putting a human face on the failures of flawed institutions. That approach should, in theory, have been perfect for a Hurricane Katrina story. Instead, while leaving no doubt that many institutions — the military, privatized healthcare, local and federal governments — failed the city and its residents, as the series moves forward it becomes too much of a bland legal procedural with simplistic moralizing of the sort earlier episodes avoided.
For five hours, Five Days at Memorial is designed to twist your very soul into knots and it generally works. The ensemble is uniformly solid and fittingly tormented throughout. Despite a finale titled “The Reckoning,” the closing three episodes don’t seem prepared to offer a reckoning of their own — or else they’re so caught up in the spirit-draining heft of Katrina and the devastation it left in its wake that “exhaustion” is all that remains, and not always in a way that makes for good TV.