Review: The Hot Zone 1×1-1×2 (US: National Geographic)

Ebola meets monkeys and bad wigs, but still manages to scare

Liam Cunningham and Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone
Liam Cunningham and Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone

In the US: Nightly, National Geographic
In the UK: Will air later this year

Long-time readers of TMINE will know I’m a sucker for a killer virus show. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was exposure at an early age to The Andromeda Strain and The Satan Bug, or maybe the titles of Survivors scared me silly.

Whatever it was, I’ve always eagerly awaited the arrival of whatever new killer virus show has come our way, whether it be that Andromeda Strain remake, Helix, Outbreak or The Burning Zone.

The Hot Zone

The Burning Zone is of note because it was a clear reference to the definitive non-fiction killer virus book of the 90s: Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, one of the 100 ‘books that shaped a century of science’, which naturally I devoured when it came out. It was a three-pronged medical history, looking at the emergence of the Ebola virus and Marburg in Zaire, other related ‘filoviruses‘, and the arrival in the US of a strain of Ebola in 1989 and how the US army responded.

And it was frightening. So very frightening. Indeed, it was so frightening that it actually influenced how the world’s governments reacted when there was another outbreak of Ebola.

The Burning Zone was nonsense. And initially terrible. Nevertheless, it was both clearly inspired by The Hot Zone and clearly different enough that it wouldn’t infringe Preston’s copyright. Outbreak, too, was very obviously an adaptation of The Hot Zone but a sufficiently loose one that no lawsuit could have touched it.

Now, just a couple of decades later, one TV show dares to obtain the copyright clearances that others failed to acquire. It’s The Hot Zone and it’s a little bit silly, but nevertheless still very frightening.

The Hot Zone
Liam Cunningham and Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone

Heated up

The Hot Zone time hops around. It begins with a short look at the arrival of Marburg in Nairobi in 1980. It then leaps forward to 1989 where we have Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) playing the part of real-life army colonel Dr Nancy Jaax, who was with USAMRIID at the time. Her laboratory received part of a monkey that died of a strange infection and whose fellow monkeys are now dying a short drive away from the nation’s capital. What is the disease, how contagious might it be and is the US at risk?

However, with episode two, we go back to the 1970s, to find out whom Margulies has been phoning for help in 1989. Why, it’s her former mentor Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones, Roughnecks) who with James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Das Boot) was in Zaire, witnessing one of the first outbreaks of Ebola. There we see what people were prepared to do to avoid Ebola spreading – none of which is helpful for a doctor trying to obtain samples.

Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone
Julianna Margulies in The Hot Zone

Zoned out

For the most part, The Hot Zone is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the book. Surprising because there are a lot of things in it that you think are daft and couldn’t possibly have happened – except they did, albeit not necessarily at the time the show said they did and not necessarily involving the people the show depicts. However, the show does twist things around a lot to sledgehammer home a bit of political commentary.

For example, in real life, one of the flasks containing a monkey sample appeared to be contaminated with harmless pseudomonas bacterium, and two USAMRIID scientists exposed themselves to the virus… by wafting the flask. It’s just none of those scientists was Peter Jahrling (played by Topher Grace), the now head of Emerging Viral Pathogens Section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And he then didn’t go and get a blood testing kit from the local HIV/AIDS testing clinic so he find out if he had been infected.

Similarly, Jaxx did indeed cut herself and was exposed to the virus, but it was at a later date – and the idea that she could be given an ‘all clear’ for infection with an apparently unknown virus after a few hours is clearly nonsense. And, of course, it wasn’t actually Jaxx who identified the virus – it was Jahrling and Thomas Geisbert, Jaxx being a veterinary pathologist in real-life, not a virologist or microbiologist.

Noah Emmerich in The Hot Zone
Noah Emmerich in The Hot Zone

Going viral

So sure, not exactly 100% factual and at times a bit silly – and I’m not just talking about Topher Grace’s wig or the fact that it’s an 80s flashback show so we have to have The Americans‘ Noah Emmerich in it for some reason, complaining that his wife’s too busy playing with her killer viruses to look after the kids.

We also have a few standard storytelling devices, clunkily used, such as the new recruit who’s apparently been highly trained for the specific task of working in Biosafety Level 4 laboratories but who nevertheless needs absolutely everything explained to him, as if he were the audience at home who knows nothing about viruses.

Nevertheless, despite all of that and even if you know the events well and therefore know, for example, that (spoiler alert) (spoiler alert) the Reston strain of Ebola is only dangerous to monkeys, not humans , The Andromeda Strain is reassuringly scientific at its core and also quite, quite tense. Everything feels exaggerated and a bit pulpy, but only a bit – it’s close enough to reality to hit home.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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