Part 1 of 6
Date of airing: May 27, 2019 (National Geographic Channel)
Nielsen ratings information: 1.384 million viewers, 0.28rating with Adults 18-49, 0.19 rating with Adults 18-34, 0.40 rating with Adults 25-54, 0.87 rating with Adults 50+
I was two episodes into HBO’s terrifying real-life horror show CHERNOBYL, when National Geographic premiered THE HOT ZONE, and this show was on my radar more than CHERNOBYL ever was, due to the fact that I like virus outbreaks more as a premise in television or film, and I adore the heck out of Julianna Margulies, who I could watch act any day of the week. Even CANTERBURY’S LAW was an entertaining legal drama because of her, and that show didn’t really have a reason to exist in the first place. So, here basically is the companion television miniseries to CHERNOBYL – two real-life horror shows about the potential end of the world needing to be prevented by scientist of sound mind and judgment, and who have to go against men who don’t want to listen and figure that the end of the world is a one-in-a-million chance that can never happen here. And the weird thing is, both shows were airing at the same time, which could be coincidence, but could also not be.
Compared to CHERNOBYL’s opening hour, THE HOT ZONE was a little better, due to the focus on the characters in the story. At the end of the day though, both shows can’t be compared, as one deals with the horrible aftermath of an accident, and the other deals with the threat of a disease killing millions and billions. Hell, even the premises of both shows can’t be compared, as one only threatened parts of Europe, if the thermal explosion had happened, while the other could pretty much kill the entire world within weeks. Still, both shows have something in common, and that’s death from a very unlikely source you didn’t even think could ever hit you. Turned into a scripted television show, both premises have shown that they can be built into a narrative much differently, with CHERNOBYL going for the disaster horror thriller in its first hour, while THE HOT ZONE basically just teased the existence of the Ebola virus on American soil and didn’t even scientifically prove it to be a fact by the end of the episode. I have to say I know absolutely nothing of the late 1980s/early 1990s Ebola story on American soil (this show is literally giving me a history lesson now, and because it airs on NatGeo, I hope it’s as historically accurate as possible), so I won’t know what is about to happen, but I do question now how long it took for U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D. to figure out they were dealing with Ebola, and how much of a premise it can actually be for a scripted television program. In all honesty, there wasn’t a lot of horror or thrill in this premiere episode, due to the fact that Nancy was following her hunch for most of the time, yet was unable to follow up on that hunch. Besides that, the episode didn’t end with confirmation of the Ebola virus, but instead decided to end way before that and have a somewhat crude scenes about two dead monkeys double-bagged in garbage bags exchanging car trunks. Is the real-life story not worthy enough of an exciting and thrilling TV drama?
As a scripted program, it was still a good opener though. Seeing Nancy in her field of work made me like her immediately, as well as understand how she works and how she might pressure for the truth in later episodes, let alone trying to warn the world. This hour did a great job in establishing not only Nancy’s job, but also how the procedure works and what a pathologist always has to go through just to get into the thick of things and make some answers. Seeing Nancy and Captain Orman go from level zero to level four was exciting to me, and I almost cursed the episode for letting Nancy have that cut on her arm (which I can’t understand why she didn’t notice it herself, since it went through two layers of protection), because she had to interrupt the search for her answer, which means the technical and scientific procedure of establishing a specific virus in the sample she had was of high interest to me. Those technical depictions of things I know nothing about, because I don’t have the knowledge nor the language skills to understand everything, are always fascinating to me, which is why a show like ER (with all its technical and medical talks that give me a deep dive into the language of the medical field) or a film like APOLLO 13 (with all its technical and space talks that give me a deep dive into the language of NASA space programs, let alone operating a spaceship) are considered all-time favorites with me. And besides all that, the episode worked for me, because it focused on Nancy Jaax. It’s her show, it’s her story (probably), and the Ebola crisis is depicted from her point of view. That makes things a little more personal and emotional, and it gives the viewers an opportunity to connect with the premise through one of its characters, which wasn’t quite possible during the first hour of CHERNOBYL.
In the meantime though, let’s never listen to men again. Jahrling sometimes behaved like he was running the show, and it became very obvious that he wasn’t interested in following Nancy’s hunch, which kind of makes him a dick. I don’t know what’s more important in places like U.S.A.M.R.I.I.D. – whether to work through your experience or work with your hunch — but this episode definitely made the impression that Nancy’s field of work is run by men and that no one cares about the opinion or experience of a woman. But even a show like THE HOT ZONE needs its villain, even if one of them has already been established as a deadly virus. With Jahrling being a dickish person, the show has found its human villain, and its character for Nancy to get through before she is able to warn the world. It’s just a shame that Jahrling happened to be a bit of a cliched character (which makes me think it’s anything but a depiction of a real-life person). At least Captain Orman was listening, right after he made a fool of himself only seeing an escort in Nancy. This guy learned quickly that women can be above him in the food chain, so he should better behave. Then again, maybe he was just nervous stepping into level four.
Best part of the episode: Nancy was mentioning the claustrophobic feeling you could feel after you get into the second layer. Later, when she was making her crash exit, there were w few second of her face inside the suit helmet, showcasing how claustrophobic it can be. Although maybe the helmet was a little too enlarged for this specific shot, making things a little less claustrophobic than they should have been.
Worst part of the episode: Yeah great, let’s just pack two dead monkeys into garbage bags and leave it with the pathologist. Hazleton doesn’t have procedure on how to handle live or dead specimens? I know, this is the late 1980s, but goddamn, this was almost deliberately evil by Frank.
Weirdest part of the episode: Did random people really drop off packages like that to a scientific and medical lab to check whether something interesting is within the package’s content? When that styrofoam box was delivered, my paranoid mind was thinking “bomb”, and when Nancy opened it right in the office, my second bout of paranoia was thinking “poison gas”. I’m actually impressed that the package’s content wasn’t analyzed in a more secure and locked room, just in case. Because really, who knows what’s in those packages…
Player of the episode: Julianna Margulies is one of the two reasons I decided to pick up the show, with the other reason being non-human, so naturally she wins over everything here.