“The Hot Zone,” a new limited series that played at the Tribeca Film Festival April 30 ahead of its debut on National Geographic May 27, begins with a graphic burst of effluvium. A boil-covered air passenger flying over central Africa discharges vomit; later, in the hospital, he practically explodes blood onto a doctor, who very slowly blinks, as if in disbelief that a person could contain so much foul fluid.
These early sequences fulfill several purposes. For one thing, they warn off potential viewers with weak stomachs, and signal to those sticking around exactly what this story will entail. More crucially, they indicate quite how serious are the stakes of this series, about the fight against the Ebola virus after a stateside outbreak in 1989. Death is nothing new on television. But the grotesque hemorrhaging Ebola induces in its unlucky sufferers brings home the gravity of the story, and the courage of its players.
Julianna Margulies stars as Dr. Nancy Jaax, a real-life scientist who, with her husband (played by Noah Emmerich), found herself forced to respond to an outbreak within a monkey-importing facility, at which a number of recently shipped simians have unexpectedly died. The sequences of Margulies sealed into airtight protective gear draw their tension not from whether or not Ebola has arrived stateside (as we know it has) but from the artfully-drawn misery of trying to maneuver through the hellscape of an infected monkey house in heavy, throttling equipment that feels like it, too, has designs on your life. When a partner of Jaax’s melts down practically as soon as the equipment has been put on, we understand his misery.
“The Hot Zone” works best as an examination of process in precisely this way — showing what it takes to defeat an outbreak, both in Jaax’s storyline and in one told in flashback, as her mentor (“Game of Thrones’s” Liam Cunningham) attempts to find an Ebola survivor and thus to use his or her antibodies for a cure. Margulies brings admirable steel to her lead role, although attempts to draw out her character’s domestic life at length don’t always land. (The process by which her more reticent husband becomes a fully-engaged partner in the fight is story enough; a subplot about her father’s failing health is one beat too many, perhaps). And among the supporting cast, Topher Grace (who has lately been mounting a mini-comeback of sorts after a sparkling supporting role in “BlacKkKlansman”) stands out as Dr. Peter Jahrling, a virologist who isn’t sure if he’s been infected, and who can’t turn to conventional blood testing without risking the wider public discovering the disease-infested “hot zone” sitting in their midst and sparking a panic. “Do you think people know when they’re sick?” he muses at one point, rhetorically. “Deep down, on some level?” He hasn’t (yet) sprouted boils or let loose a spray of blood, but he, more than anyone else in “The Hot Zone,” shows how epidemics poison not just the body but the mind, with a paralyzing burst of fear.
That paralysis also prevents engaging the idea of life-endangering outbreaks as future realities for which one should, or must, prepare. As if to combat the ahistorical way many may watch “The Hot Zone” — as the story of a past incident in which Ebola was successfully vanquished for the first time — the series ends with several notes of melancholic fear, a terror that burns less brightly than encounters with infected monkeys but that’s all the more haunting for it. “There will be a next time,” Jahrling asks after Jaax testifies before Congress that the public must be prepared going forward. “Everyone understands that, don’t they?” As the limited series’s closing notes indicate, Ebola broke out in Africa in 2014 and again in 2018 — the latter of which outbreaks is not contained. That may come as news to some viewers. And the preceding six episodes, which indicated just how cruel Ebola is wherever it exists and just how easily it can hop oceans in our interconnected world to become very vividly our problem, make it feel all the more pressing.
“The Hot Zone.” National Geographic. Debuts May 27. Six episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Julianna Margulies, Noah Emmerich, Liam Cunningham, Topher Grace, Paul James, Nick Searcy, Robert Wisdom, Robert Sean Leonard
Executive Producers: Kelly Souders, Brian Peterson, Lynda Obst, Ridley Scott, David Zucker, Michael Uppendahl.