The Hot Zone Recap: Never Trust A Chimp Worried Sick

May 28, 2019
Jonathon Wilson 0
TV, TV Recaps
3

Summary

Nat Geo’s new series kicks off with the two-part “Arrival; Cell H”, and it’s a mixed bag of education and cautionary thrills.

3

Summary

Nat Geo’s new series kicks off with the two-part “Arrival; Cell H”, and it’s a mixed bag of education and cautionary thrills.

This The Hot Zone recap for the first two episodes, titled “Arrival; Cell H” Part 1 and 2, contains spoilers.


Between HBO’s Chernobyl and now National Geographic’s The Hot Zone, my Tuesday mornings contain far too much exposure — a fitting word choice, I’m sure you’ll agree — to horrific bodily trauma. Both shows are based on reality; the former on the famously disastrous meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the latter on a 1989 Ebola scare adapted from same-titled 1994 book by Richard Preston. Neither show is bad, but one is a lot better than the other. For now, anyway.

The reason The Hot Zone, which otherwise contains all the hallmarks of a good, frantic contagion thriller, isn’t as captivating as HBO’s new hit is probably a question of craftsmanship. It has all the explosive vomiting, bubbling skin and claustrophobic hazmat suits anyone might ever need, but the whole production, at least in the two-part “Arrival; Cell H”, feels as sterile as its quarantine areas. There’s an artlessness to how information is presented — usually gobbled up and enthusiastically spat out by its stars at great length — that can quickly become tedious. And for all the show’s efforts to thrill and terrify, it can’t build a set-piece quite like those of its bigger-budget premium rival, although it makes a decent effort.

But perhaps a direct comparison is unfair. We shouldn’t undersell the quality of the cast, headlined by Julianna Margulies as Colonel Nancy Jaax, a scientist who operates out of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) alongside her husband Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Jaax (Noah Emmerich). Whenever they’re not dispensing gobfuls of scientific babble, it’s the job of these two to sell the audience on the rigorous safety procedures and extreme dangers of dealing with these kinds of unstoppable and unprecedentedly deadly superviruses. And in “Arrival; Cell H”, this stuff mostly works.

Shows like The Hot Zone work best when they begin to spiral out of control, and this one is pretty good at that too. Despite its obvious intention of educating the audience to some extent, even if it always comes across a little gracelessly, there’s a lot of value in establishing characters as experts in various fields and then introducing them to scenarios that send them into a panic. And while I said I wouldn’t persist with the unfair comparisons to Chernobyl, here’s another favorable one: The escalation of disastrous events born of that panic and fear and the mismanagement of information is just as present here, and almost as effective.

It’s the overall construction that lets The Hot Zone down; just a generally sloppy idea of what actually works best about the show, leading to too much time wasted on certain subplots and uninteresting character dynamics and a reiteration of the same circular arguments that become less and less compelling each time. Whenever things become fraught and dangerous, all is forgiven; the suspense is capably built and maintained, and understanding the stakes helps those frantic notes to really sing. But that underlying sense of a textbook being read aloud is never quite overcome for long enough to allow The Hot Zone to really sink the hooks in; it’s a solid show and one with important things to say, but it just isn’t saying them compellingly enough just yet.

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