This goes out to those co-workers who leave damp paper towels on the floor of the office bathroom because they’re too afraid to touch the door handle after they wash their hands. You know who you are.
As punishment for your crimes, I hereby sentence you to watch all six hours of the phobic nightmare called “The Hot Zone,” National Geographic’s meanderingly melodramatic miniseries inspired by (“based on” would be stretching things) Richard Preston’s best-selling book about the emergence of hemhorragic fevers and the deadly Ebola virus, a pesky strain of which found its way to a group of lab primates at a Northern Virginia facility in 1989 and maybe-probably-almost unleashed an epidemic in the Washington, D.C., area. I hope it’s not a spoiler alert to report 30 years later that the threat was averted.
Ebola certainly remains a cause for panic wherever it presents itself — a 2013 outbreak eventually claimed some 11,000 lives in West Africa and hitched a ride to the United States, where it sickened some health workers. But the contagious worry ginned up by Preston’s research (first published in the New Yorker in 1992) seems to have gone into cold storage. The planned Hollywood film version of “The Hot Zone” languished in studio quarantine, while other viral-pandemic movies came and went (remember the one where doctors performed an autopsy on Gwyneth Paltrow’s patient-zero corpse?), but filmmaker Ridley Scott has rekindled his long-standing interest in the project, serving as one of the producers for this TV version.
Something vital has been lost along the way. Wearing head-to-toe hazmat garb and one of those just-another-job expressions on her face, Julianna Margulies (“The Good Wife”) delivers a dutifully disciplined performance as Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax, who oversees a high-security biosafety division at Fort Detrick. It’s the fall of 1989 and Nancy receives a strange sample for testing — a monkey heart wrapped in foil inside a foam ice-chest left on her facility’s loading dock. What she sees under the microscope sends her into red alert; before she knows it, she’s driving to and from a primate lab in Reston, Virginia, with dead monkeys in the trunk of her car.
Nancy reaches out to her mentor, rogue epidemiologist Wade Carter (“Game of Thrones’ “ Liam Cunningham), who was ostracized by his peers for his alarmist tendencies and inability to stick to protocol. Much of “The Hot Zone” flashes back to Carter’s journey to then-Zaire in 1976, where he first encounters the terrifying Ebola-like virus and sees how quickly (and grotesquely) it kills its victims.
Back in Washington, it’s a series of showdowns: A cocky lab tech (Topher Grace) thinks he knows better than Nancy, but spirals into panic when he suspects he’s been infected; Nancy must assert her authority when her worried husband, Jerry (“The Americans’ “ Noah Emmerich), who is also a lieutenant colonel, takes over the mission to clear the contaminated lab of all its Ebola-exposed monkeys; and Carter faces down his former colleague-turned-nemesis (James D’Arcy) at the Centers for Disease Control.
The series gives thoughtful treatment to its depiction of safety precautions and scientific concern, yet the dialogue and drama fall disappointingly flat. The real problem exists in some murky, made-for-TV zone between nonfiction and fiction. By sticking to “The Hot Zone’s” essential tale, this version remains a story of close calls and near misses. A full-blown Ebola epidemic never occurs, leaving the show’s writers too dependent on anxious monkeys that leap out of dark corners with their fangs bared at the Army personnel tasked with catching and euthanizing them. Six hours of that is about four hours too much.
Where “The Hot Zone” briefly excels, however, is in its attention to prickly paranoia. As its story builds, there are lingering shots of futile caution, as characters reconsider door handles, itchy noses, cash exchanges, kitchen wounds and other sniffy, spattery, vaporous ways that humans mindlessly intermingle. It’s hardly a full-blown crisis, but it’s creepy all the same.