Spoilers: Nat Geo's 'The Hot Zone' Starts Strong, But Fades Hard
Yesterday, I reviewed what was essentially the first three episodes of National Geographic’s The Hot Zone, which I thought were compelling enough thanks to the acting talent involved (Julianna Margulies, Topher Grace, Liam Cunningham, James D’Arcy, Noah Emmerich) and the power of Richard Preston’s source material. The first three hours concern the chaos of the initial breakout of Ebola in a group of research monkeys in Reston, Virginia, the fear among the scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) over potentially contracting Ebola, and the mad scramble to contain the outbreak.
Unfortunately, by the fourth episode, the momentum flags, the soap-opera elements take over, and the writers endeavor to keep it interesting with a lot of false scares and cheap horror movie antics. For anyone who might have started watching based on my earlier review suggesting it was pretty OK, the final three hours of the six-hour miniseries fall off a cliff so badly that it retroactively makes the entire series much less worth watching. There’s so much going on in the first three hours that it’s easier to get distracted from the pat movie-of-the-week vibe. By the fourth episode, however, the outbreak seems to be contained to a medical research facility in Reston, and all that’s left for the series to do is kill a bunch of monkeys.
Spoilers: The monkeys die.
In fact, after spending a half hour in a jurisdictional pissing match over who gets to kill the monkeys — the military or the CDC — and another half hour over who in the military gets to lead the team — Dr. Nancy Jaax or her husband, Jerry Jaax — the final two episodes basically go through the motions of a dumb horror movie. A bunch of military folks in protective gear go into a research facility, sedate monkeys, and then kill them. Sometimes the monkeys fling their poo at them. Sometimes the monkeys break free of their cage. Sometimes, monkeys that seem to be dead are not actually dead and attack their faces. Sometimes, the protective gear is ripped. And just to ramp up matters, there’s also a Washington Post reporter snooping around, threatening to uncover the story and cause a public panic by reporting on it. Oh, and Dr. Jaax’s father decides to die at this exact moment because I guess it makes for a more dramatic story.
Moreover, in order to give viewers the illusion that Ebola might be spreading among humans, one of the lab guys develops a fever (it’s flu), another breaks down (anxiety) and Jerry Jaax collapses because of stress, exhaustion, and dehydration, but viewers are meant to fear that it’s Ebola.
It’s not. As revealed in the final ten minutes — during Congressional testimony — we learn that this particular Ebola strain does not affect humans. But after the monkeys are eradicated and as the swelling West Wing-like music plays triumphantly, each of the characters reminds us in one way or another of the danger of Ebola and AIDS and other mutating viruses that lose their homes because of deforestation but manage to come back stronger and more powerful than ever. “This monster will be back again,” we are reminded for what must be the 17th time during the miniseries.
In the post-script, Liam Cunningham’s Wade Carter goes back to Africa in an attempt to find the source of Ebola; Topher Grace’s Peter Jarhling helps to develop protocols for future outbreaks; Julianna Margulies’ Dr. Nancy Jaax and her husband Jerry (Noah Emmerich) give speeches and continue to be instrumental in the fight against Ebola, and — it turns out — James D’Arcy’s Trevor Rhodes ends up marrying the medical worker he met in Africa, played by Mamie Gummer.
Header Image Source: National Geographic
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