It takes a whole 26 minutes, but yes: Someone does say “Welcome to the hot zone” on “The Hot Zone,” our first sign that we are in for something pat.
The six-episode mini-series on NatGeo (which airs in two-episode blocs Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) is based on the 1994 best seller by Richard Preston about the emergence of Ebola and other viruses. So it should have plenty of material: Ebola is a real disease, some of the characters are based on real people and you don’t have to work too hard to make a shrieking monkey seem ominous. But this “Hot Zone” is, alas, not particularly hot.
Julianna Margulies stars as Dr. Nancy Jaax, a military infectious disease expert who becomes concerned about a mysterious outbreak at a primate research facility in Reston, Va. Her husband, Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich), also works for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, but he’s less concerned about the possible virus and more concerned about his wife. The show is set primarily in 1989, and it’s impossible to watch Emmerich drive around in an ’80s clunker and not think, “My time would be better spent rewatching ‘The Americans.’”
This happens again when Liam Cunningham shows up as Nancy’s renegade former mentor, and I thought, “Or how about ‘Game of Thrones’?” When Robert Sean Leonard showed up to defend his company’s blasé attitude toward monkey diseases, I wondered if “House” still holds up. Topher Grace, the only performer costumed in any identifiably ’80s manner, made me curious about the new season of “Black Mirror.” Given any opportunity to think about something other than “The Hot Zone,” I took it.
And not because I don’t love a good monkey necropsy — because boy, do I. I read the book “The Hot Zone” over and over again. But the mini-series contorts itself into a more traditional monster movie, with jump-scares and a horror score. It’s effectively startling, but it makes a farce out of something that shouldn’t need much goosing.
All the catastrophic effects of Ebola and other viruses are vividly depicted — shout-out to the facial blister department — but I never once had the feeling that any of these symptoms were happening to human beings rather than just sweaty props.
That vacancy is the biggest issue for the show: A tale of human vulnerability doesn’t seem to have any human beings present. The home-life stories that are meant to add emotional heft are distracting and brittle, and the characters are under-imagined. Cunningham’s character might as well be the big-game hunter from “Jurassic Park” or Quint from “Jaws,” waxing on about how viruses are smarter than we are, how they’re “the perfect killer.”
That kind of forced reverie feels especially unnecessary because by far the most effective aspect of the show is its sense of reverence. All the rituals of investigation, the methodical rinsing and robing, the heavily enforced buddy system to go into cordoned-off contaminated spaces or high-risk lab environments: These are rites. We see those rites transform characters and consecrate spaces, turning something as ordinary as picking up a phone handset into a hallowed experience. But just as the show is about to illuminate a great truth, it backs all the way off, leaving us stranded.
Margulies, a three-time Emmy winner who is great elsewhere, never connects here. She’s also saddled with lines such as “I need to find another monkey to sample!” and “The Ebola virus spreads when we show each other love.”
This would be hilariously out of place no matter what, but it’s particularly galling after six hours that have plenty of conversations about fluids and feces and disease vectors but no credible emotions. There’s an absence of interiority to everything, a glassy distance.
Is that meant to echo the isolation of a hazmat suit? I don’t think it is, but that would have been cool.
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