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Five Days at Memorial Review: Hurricane Katrina Miniseries Is a Bleak, Human Story of Resilience and Failure

Across eight tense episodes, the show will enthrall and suffocate you at the same time

Kyle Fowle
Vera Farmiga, Five Days at Memorial

Vera Farmiga, Five Days at Memorial

Apple TV+

There's a moment in the second episode of Apple TV+'s Five Days at Memorial when a man invested in the private medical industry asks a colleague if Hurricane Katrina is actually good for business. The man prefaces this statement with faux guilt, trying to suggest that he hates to even ask this question, but that business is business. In reality, we know he wants the real answer, that the bottom line is all he cares about. In essence, he wants to know if it's possible to profit off of disaster. Similarly, we might ask ourselves, is it possible to "enjoy" a dramatized TV version of real-life events, when the wounds are still fresh for many?

It's an interesting question, and one that Five Days at Memorial grapples with in its own way. Your mileage may vary as the carnage and moral compromises pile up across the limited series' eight episodes, but there's no denying that John Ridley and Carlton Cuse, who wrote the entire series and directed the first five episodes, have taken great care to ensure that the horrific true story, told in Sheri Fink's book of the same name, is treated with respect and complexity.

The series premiere is an absolutely punishing introduction to this specific story of Hurricane Katrina. At the beginning of the episode we're introduced to everyone working at Memorial and a second private care unit, LifeCare, within the same building. Everything is brightly lit, every hallway and room a beacon of functioning, empathetic healthcare. Outside, though, the storm is picking up, and the seriousness of the situation is rapidly changing.


Five Days at Memorial


  • Unrelenting atmosphere
  • Impactful use of real-life footage
  • Personal stories balanced well with tense disaster scenes


  • Heavy on the exposition
  • Some characters play as archetypes

Cuse and Ridley do a remarkable job of ratcheting up the tension. After all, we already know what's coming; we know what this story is about — the first episode uses a government investigation into the 45 deaths at the hospital during the titular "five days" as a framing device for the drama — but rather than dull the impact, our knowledge actually enhances the dread. We know this idyllic vision can't last. Before long, the hospital is getting hit hard by the hurricane, and some gnarly CGI effects transport us into disaster movie territory, culminating in a mad-dash rescue through an overhanging bridge between the two hospitals.

That's only the beginning. While Memorial manages to weather the storm, and the second episode deals more with the interpersonal lives of its main characters, before long the levees have broken, the hospital loses all power and potable water because of the flooding, and the staff are forced to make excruciating decisions in order to try to save their patients during an unprecedented disaster.

While the show occasionally crafts its characters as archetypes, with backstories and motivations that feel stale and perfunctory — whether it's the first-episode reveal of a pregnant nurse, a cliche mother-daughter relationship, or the rather bland romance involving Vera Farmiga's Dr. Anna Pou — it's never enough to ruin the show's enthralling grip. In the first five episodes, each spanning a single day of the disaster that left 45 patients dead, the viewer is firmly planted in the claustrophobic world of the barely functioning hospital.

If you're looking for any sort of subtlety when it comes to show's theme or cultural and political ideas, you won't find it here; if you've seen Ridley's previous work, the anthology series American Crime, you know that he's known for painting in broad strokes. Five Days at Memorial is very on-the-nose and filled with exposition when it comes to laying out that various levels of government failure that led to the deaths at Memorial, and while the information overload is too much at times, the show never takes long to return its focus to the characters and the impossible decisions they must make as they try to evacuate patients in a flooded hospital.

That's where Five Days at Memorial shines. If it's too insistent in its look at bureaucratic failure — something that HBO's Treme previously dramatized with much more care and nuance — the series makes up for it by telling a very human story. It's impossible to watch these eight episodes and not think about the decisions you'd make, or about how human resilience often has to make up for institutional failure in the face of disaster. Five Days at Memorial isn't a hopeful show by any means, but it is one that strives to use tragedy to tell a more complex, existential story about everyday human beings who are pushed to their physical and moral limits.

Premieres: Friday, Aug. 12 on Apple TV+
Who's in it: Vera Farmiga, Adepero Oduye, Cornelius Smith Jr., Julie Ann Emery, Cherry Jones
Who's behind it: John Ridley and Carlton Cuse
For fans of: ER, Chernobyl, Roland Emmerich-esque disaster movies
How many episodes we watched: 6 of 8