The Hot Zone





Paul Asay

TV Series Review

Ebola. Few words are more terrifying.

It feels like the flu at first—the fever, the pain, the nausea. As the virus progresses, the bleeding begins and, often, never stops. About 90% of the people who get the disease die from it. Even as I write this (in late May 2019), the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history is sweeping through the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It’s perhaps the most frightening disease on the planet. But for those of us who don’t live in central Africa (where Ebola outbreaks are disturbingly frequent), we feel relatively protected. We may be horrified by the headlines and feel terrible for those impacted by the disease. But it is, after all, over there. Not here.

But what if it was here?

Spills and Chills

It’s 1989, and folks from Hazleton Laboratories in Reston, Va., are wondering what’s killing off all their monkeys. Luckily, the lab’s just across the border from a facility that can find out: The laboriously-named United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland. So they pack a hunk o’ bloody tissue sample in aluminum foil, toss it in a cooler and send it north.

Pretty much everyone figures it’ll likely show signs of simian hemorrhagic fever: No big deal. I mean, it’s bad for the monkeys and all (and certainly inconvenient for Hazleton), but the fever—true to its name—sticks to monkeys. It doesn’t cause problems for humans.

But when Dr. Nancy Jaax starts poking around with the sample’s cells, she sees they’re not just dead, but that something made them explode. And she realizes that these monkeys might’ve died from something far more serious than a simian fever.

Not many people believe her conclusions at first. Not many want to. But soon, the science becomes irrefutable: A new strain of Ebola has come to the states.

Oh, hey. Did I mention that all this is based on a true story?

Worth Catching?

The Hot Zone is named after the super-secure, wildly intimidating level 4 biosafety containment area at the Army medical research facility. It’s also the name of a 1994 “non-fiction thriller” written by Richard Preston, upon which this National Geographic miniseries is based.

Nancy Jaax is a real person who indeed uncovered a real disease right next door to Washington D.C.—one of the country’s most crowded metropolises. Are all the details in the story true to life? Not exactly, the experts say. Clearly, the show has made use of some dramatic license here and there. Still, NatGeo’s latest foray into fictional storytelling does offer some salient facts—depicting the frightening level of security around a level 4 facility, for instance, or the hard, often heroic work that folks do to keep terrible viruses from hitting the nearest mall.

The show can be incredibly grotesque in places: Ebola-related diseases are extraordinarily messy and are transferred through bodily fluids like blood and vomit. We see both here, along with the occasional monkey corpse, gory organ or bleeding blister. It’s not the sort of show most would like to watch while eating dinner.

But such grotesqueries are, perhaps, inescapable on a miniseries predicated on the discovery and (possible) contagion of a particularly horrific disease. And in other respects, The Hot Zone is surprisingly restrained. Sexual dalliances would seem out of place in a show like this, anyway. We hear some minor profanity, but nothing to the level we might expect when you, say, find a hole in your hazmat suit. And while science definitely rules the day here, faith isn’t out of place either. We’re treated to a nice dinnertime prayer in the opening episode. And let’s face it: Even the most secular among us might turn our eyes heavenward when faced with a largely incurable, untreatable disease.

Starring Emmy-winner Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and a bevy of recognizable actors, The Hot Zone is often horrifying and occasionally nauseating. But it’s also interesting—and it could’ve been far worse.

Episode Reviews

May 27, 2019: “The Arrival”

Dr. Nancy Jaax investigates tissue from a dead monkey sent from a nearby lab and discovers that it could signify a horrific new disease. While her co-worker, Peter Jarhling, believes the tissue samples were simply contaminated and don’t warrant an extreme reaction, Nancy’s not so sure. But when her hazmat suit springs a leak while probing new tissue samples, she’s forced into quarantine.

In a flashback, we see a man suffer from a horrific disease and board an airplane covered in what look like bumps and blisters. He vomits several times in an air sickness bag, and the flight attendant dumps out the bloody stew down the plane’s toilet. In the hospital, the sick man throws up all over the attending doctor, spraying his face and chest with bloody vomit.

Nancy dissects and pokes around a bloody lump of monkey tissue. We see some frozen monkey corpses (partially obscured by plastic bags), which Nancy and a lab attendant put in the trunk of her car. She tells the man to follow her down the freeway and to make sure the corpses don’t thaw out and drip blood on the road. (We hear about other dead monkeys, too.) Nancy cuts her hand while cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Later, she discovers a hole in her hazmat suit on that same hand, and workers detect blood. (Whether it’s hers or from a tissue sample is unclear.)

During that same Thanksgiving dinner, Nancy’s ill father offers a mealtime prayer. Nancy and her husband, Jerry, kiss and hug affectionately. He makes reference to a “macramé bikini top” that Nancy used to wear. Someone smokes a cigarette. Wine is served with dinner.

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Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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