Don't sleep on it: Five days at Memorial, a gut wrenching genre mash up.

 Doctor, how did all those 45 people die? 

So starts Five days, Five Days at Memorial, a retelling of five fateful days at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, based on the 2013 book of the same name by Sheri Fink. This miniseries is written and directed by the powerhouse duo of John Ridley (Twelve years a slave and American Crime) and Carlton Cuse from Lost. And these two didn't skimp on production value for this show; imposing sets, action, and pure spectacle permeate the first episodes, and it almost feels like a seventies disaster movie. And so we get introduced to the vast cast, with familiar faces like Vera Farmiga as Dr. Anna Pau and Cherry Jones as Susan Moldrick's emergency-incident commander. (Can people stop saying that? She soon expresses her helplessness.) 

All these nurses and doctors go around taking care of patients and accepting others taking shelter at Memorial hospital, unperturbed by Hurricane Katrina, about to make landfall. The nurses laugh at Doctor Pau's emergency kit, a can opener, and some tuna; she is a transplant without hurricane experience. This stoic demeanor continues until they realize they will lose the generators when the water reaches 4 feet of water and will have to evacuate. There is no plan for that; for every other circumstance, there is, but for this, there is nothing.  

What starts as an incredible, well-made disaster show, with real-life images and those stunning sets, like the shaky rusted vertigo-inducing helicopter pad, soon becomes a profoundly human story. But not one of heroism. Instead, it lays bare governmental failings, company irresponsibility, human cowardice, pragmatism pushed to the extreme, and the arrogance of the few who think they know what is best for the many. 

After these last few years, it almost felt familiar; having been in Italy during the first month of the pandemic, it was pretty sobering to see how quickly the government makes a decision they think is in the public's best interest and how little you can do about it. Now the pandemic had us comfy at home, but still, you could go more than 200 meters from your house. Staying home was the understandable norm, and the government panic was also comprehensible, but the hysteria after the fact, not being unable to take a walk after the disaster that happened in hospitals in the North of Italy, in the end, proved ridiculous. Now imagine a government that doesn't care about you, doesn't have the best intentions, and doesn't want to keep you safe; instead makes decisions based on bias, laziness, and pure, unconscionable ineptness. 

People left alone and abandoned will freak out. And that is exactly what this miniseries shows.

Memorial Hospital had two privatized facilities in its building; LifeCare Hospitals, a separate rehab hospital operated on the seventh floor of the Memorial Medical building, that assisted patients until they improved enough to return home or to nursing facilities; it was not a hospice. And one of the most maddening aspects of this gripping show is how well it depicts that the nurses and people responsible for these very sick people are never considered. And what happens to them, the people responsible, and those poor people in their care is infuriating.

Another aspect that is well done is to show the position black doctors and nurses were in; rumors and fearmongering in New Orleans were running rampant, the fear of riots, muggings, and violence in the city blamed on its black citizens, influenced much of the response at the hospital, especially by the people in charge in planning the evacuation of the city. 

It also shows how innocent rumors and half-truths lead to lies and people losing their belief and then not listening to crucial information, with terrifying results, like it is happening now with climate change. 

This is a major spoiler, so please skip to the next paragraph if you haven't watched it. But it is baffling to see how after many days, boats finally arrived to evacuate; until then, there were only helicopters, and they didn't bring food or water. There was nothing to assist the doctors so they could stay there and care for patients. Then the police gave an ultimatum that everyone had to leave the hospital, resulting in nurses and doctors abandoning their more infirm patients, leaving them behind with doctor Pau, who then acted like an angel of death, even going as far as to administer lethal drugs to a man who was conscious and eager to be evacuated but was left to die, because he was obese. Is this even real? 

The rest of the episodes follow a team of investigators, like in Dopesick, who try to hold this one dr. accountable for administering lethal drugs to the patients left behind.

The show builds the case against dr Pau and allows her to tell her side of the story. Her arrogance is never questioned, but this is no caricature, and Vera Farmiga does a fantastic job. 

There are some incredible performances here; the best one is Julie Ann Emery, who Better call Saul fans will recognize as Mrs. Kettleman. Her devastation at having to leave her patient feels so real; her face sweaty, with bags under her eyes, deep as the water outside, refusing to go is one of the images that stick with you.

Cornelius Smith Jr is also hitting it out of the park. He plays Dr. Bryant, who sees all that is going on and strongly disapproves but is in no position to do anything about it; the black nurses, doctors, and patients are the heart and conscience of this story, as they should be. It is bittersweet to see how one of them is held up as a hero that saved a neonate, as a token, while every other black person in New Orleans had to face a very harsh reality. 

Maybe the series handles too much, but I found the shift in genres where the entertainment value puts a spectacle stamp on the disaster only as a way to lead into a story of human frailty, weakness, and disorganization expertly done. It shows genuinely heroic people not giving up like you would see in the standard fare but eventually being snowed under by the unwillingness to intervene due to corporate disinterest and government structural collapse; the show does not operate in a grey area where people are not all bad or all good but tells us that individuality will not be enough to overcome the forces of those who don't care. It reminds me of shows like The Wire and Dopesick, only packaged in a slightly more commercialized style that doesn't hinder apart from the music, that pulled at the heartstrings in scenes already ripping your heart out. It is not filmed as raw as those other shows, but the theme, conclusions, and reveals laying bare the stark indifference are exactly the same. 

Watch this.