Julianna Margulies, Liam Cunningham
Photo: Amanda Matlovich (National Geographic)
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In a sense, there’s no way that The Hot Zone could avoid being somewhat anticlimactic. As anyone alive to read this can personally attest, the population of the United States was not decimated by a 1989 outbreak of the Ebola virus. That’s the threat explored in this National Geographic series, based on the 1994 Richard Preston book of the same—a potentially catastrophic pathogen which, thanks to carelessness, fear, ignorance, greed, and sheer bad luck, stands a chance of running wild through a major population center, causing untold damage to public health and infrastructure. There’s plenty about this particular virus that makes it the perfect subject for a horror thriller: screaming monkeys; explosive vomiting and blood in abundance; a slow onset that guarantees a long wait before an all-clear for those potentially infected; hazmat suits and claustrophobia; the list goes on. That’s well before you get to the fact that there’s no cure, and almost no way of stopping an outbreak once it begins. Yet unlike the terrified primates, human and otherwise, who populate this story, The Hot Zone’s teeth aren’t all that sharp. It’s not that we know it all ends well. It’s that the series can’t seem to pick a lane.

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Airing, as it is, on National Geographic, it makes sense that one of the aims of this series would be to educate its viewers. That version of The Hot Zone works too. Tonally, it sometimes resembles Mars, another NatGeo property, in its efforts to pair drama with facts; like that series, the results are pretty hit and miss. But while Mars balances its truth and fiction by splitting narrative responsibilities between story and documentary, The Hot Zone puts its science, accurate and otherwise, into the mouths of its characters, saddling a mostly terrific cast with an unsustainable amount of both fictional and scientific exposition dumps. The leader of this pack: Colonel Nancy Jaax (Julianna Margulies), a scientist with a somewhat cloudy specialization in both pathogens and veterinary medicine, who is based, alongside husband Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich), at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (often called USAMRIID). Both Jaaxes do their fair share of expository monologuing, Nancy in particular, with limited success.

That’s not to say it always fails—how could any show with a cast this strong? An early sequence serves as a particular standout, ably balancing the expositional, educational, and downright terrifying. Alone in her suspicion that a sample newly arrived at USAMRIID might be more dangerous than it seems, Dr. Jaax recruits a new arrival to accompany her into deepest levels of the biohazard facility, where samples of some of the world’s most dangerous diseases are stored in fragile glass vials. Jaax leads the young man through the necessary precautions. They scrub down, suit up, secure things with multiple levels of tape, proceed through pressurized doors into progressively more secure (and unsettling) environments, until, inevitably, something goes wrong. Both Margulies and director Michael Uppendahl sell the hell out of this sequence, which checks all the knowledge boxes for the audience and characters alike while slowly but mercilessly turning up the tension. It’s what’s great about The Hot Zone in microcosm: enlightening, unsettling, sometimes terrifying, and driven by characters trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

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That last bit is where The Hot Zone edges ahead of shows like Mars (and many other series with less of an obligation to educate the public). One of the most compelling threads in both the series and Preston’s book is the tendency of humanity to get in its own way, letting impulses guide behavior in a way that could prove disastrous, even when they know better. In her eagerness to prevent disaster, Jaax creates unnecessary chaos and puts others at risk. Much the same can be said of her mentor Wade Carter (Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham, again compellingly taciturn), a virus-hunter whose urgency and singular focus has alienated many prospective or former allies, among them Trevor Rhodes (James D’Arcy, a series standout), a fellow public health expert seen first in flashbacks with Carter as the two chase down a then-unknown outbreak in Africa. And then there’s Peter Jarhling (a subdued Topher Grace) and Ben Gellis (Paul James), who discover something potentially disastrous and, letting panic get the better of them, choose to sit on the information, like a ticking bomb tucked away in the corner and ignored, in hopes it will just shut off by itself.

When Rhodes resurfaces in the present at an unexpected moment, it’s a grenade thrown into the series in the best way possible, creating new obstacles, opening new avenues of storytelling, and generally upending our assumptions about the characters and relationships the audience has witnessed thus far. Like that early tour of USAMRIID, and the sequences in which a sweaty, fumbling Jarhling tries to convince himself it’s all business as usual, Rhodes’ arrival allows the spread of knowledge and debate about procedure active and vital; it is, in its way, every bit as frightening as the slow crawls through darkened animal testing facilities filled with screaming, dying primates. In this mode, The Hot Zone can be incredibly compelling; jump scares aren’t even necessary (though some of those are great, too; as it turns out, diseased monkeys leaping at one’s face are total nightmare fuel). Much of the credit is due to the directors, who imbue even the bureaucratic scenes with undeniable urgency, and the actors more than rise to the occasion.

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If every scene functioned at that level, The Hot Zone would make for a terrific, sometimes pulpy thriller, a spoonful of horrifying sugar helping the covert educational experience go down. Yet the show’s writers let up on the gas too often, releasing its characters and audience alike from the nightmare so they can catch up with their families, rehash previous power struggles and debates, and repeat, again and again, that Wade Carter is a loose cannon, that Jarhling resents Jaax, that Jaax’s husband fears for her, that the virus might be Ebola and might not be Ebola. When the air gets let out of the balloon, it all starts to wear a bit thin. The repetition is particularly cumbersome in the final installment, as both the characters and the series aim to really hit home the idea that this will absolutely happen again; disaster may have been narrowly avoided, but crisis was not. That will have already been obvious to anyone who watched the whole show. By the fourth time we’re reminded of that, The Hot Zone has well outstayed its welcome.

All the same, it’s an impressive balancing act. There’s enough suspense and distress here to make The Hot Zone an engaging, if not exactly fun, summer viewing experience. If it sometimes turns into a PSA, that’s forgivable. The message makes it clear such a warning is well worth issuing, so mission accomplished.

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