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The "Hot" Zone

I don’t get to make this statement very often anymore and even less about bestsellers and TV miniseries but I’ve read the book.

Robert Preston

The Hot Zone. I’ve read the book by Richard Preston (who is sadly not this guy, Robert Preston). Well, okay, I haven’t read the book. I listened to the book. It’s a good book. Highly recommended if you want to see how “popular non-fiction thrillers” can be done well. It’s so good at that format when I listened to Console Wars and got super-creeped out by the casual misogyny, sometimes downright silly bad writing, lionization of middling White capitalists, and odd “Japanese voice” thing, I kept going because it reminded me of Hot Zone.

I eventually gave up on Console Wars because there’s only so much time in the world and the book has actually got zero to say.

But I didn’t give up on “The Hot Zone,” the event miniseries (aired/run on National Geographic, but produced by Fox TV); even though the miniseries only reminded me of The Hot Zone the book, I finished watching it. Because why not. Even though it never gets to the best parts of said book, even though it’s a terribly plotted television show—Kelly Souders, Brian Peterson, and Jeff Vintar are questionable show runners. James V. Hart, who might have written a movie treatment back when Hot Zone was a best-seller and Outbreak hadn’t come out yet, writes a bunch of the episodes too. Or contributes. He gets the “created by” credit, even though he doesn’t write the first episode, which breaks with tradition. At least with tradition as I understand it from watching television too much for too long.

If you’ve read the book and you remember the cave, the cave isn’t in the movie. Instead you get created for the miniseries fictional White guys Liam Cunningham and James D’Arcy hunting the disease in Africa, taking stories away from, you know, Africans. Cunningham is a Scottish Indiana Jones type—the young-age makeup on him, which is mostly just foundation and hair dye, works; it’s a shame Cunningham has zero chemistry with “lead” Julianna Margulies in the present. The present being 1989, flashbacks being 1976. D’Arcy is the square who gets roped into Cunningham’s mad quest to find a lethal virus. The show wants to pretend he’s some kind of zealot but he’s not, neither in script or performance. Maybe it’s because the writers wouldn’t know how to give him that amount of character; the directors (Michael Uppendahl and Nick Murphy) wouldn’t know how to direct for it anyway. They’re really bad.

Canada also doesn’t stand in for Washington D.C. well. The show says it’s “inspired by true events” while the book was true events told in an inspired fashion. It’s a bummer because a good show runner could do wonders with the book. They even have some of the “do wonders” possibilities in the show and do jack shit with them.

The casting doesn’t help either. “Golden Globe-winning star of ‘The Good Wife’” Margulies plays the ostensible lead, who fights against sexism in the U.S. Army’s infectious diseases institutions and basically loses that fight. Margulies’s performance in “Hot Zone” is about the same as a lazy episode of “Good Wife.” She’s fine, never anything more, which is fine for “Hot Zone.” Good for “Hot Zone,” actually.

Topher Grace is bad as her de facto sidekick, the sexist civilian scientist who gets the most sympathetic arc when he thinks he’s got Ebola and has to go to get tested in an AIDS testing speakeasy. The show has this whole juxtaposing of AIDS and Ebola reactions, which I don’t remember in the book but if it was in the book, it wouldn’t have been as poorly handled as in the miniseries. It’s not a bad idea, it’s just the show doesn’t have the producers, writers, or directors to properly explore good ideas. It’s a bummer.

Cunningham and D’Arcy are caricatures, but who cares. They’re not as bad as Grace or as comically ineffectual as Noah Emmerich, who’s Margulies’s husband and the family’s Mr. Mom. One of the many lazy character “development” moments has Emmerich telling Margulies she’s more important to the family than him, even though he’s the only one who does anything with the kids except drive them to school. Once. She takes them once. But only because it can work in the “AIDS panic” sub-sub-subplot and Margulies changing from her Alicia Florick outfit to her Army camo in her car because she’s that kind of go getter.

The show also chokes on the Chuck Shamata as Margulies’s dying dad subplot, which has a lot of potential but not with these writers, not with this show.

Robert Wisdom is fine as Margulies and Emmerich’s commanding officer but it’s more of an extended “Oh, shit, it’s Bunny Colvin!” cameo.

Paul James isn’t good, isn’t bad as Grace’s flunky.

Robert Sean Leonard is similar. He’s there to make things feel less Canadian. Ditto racist Nick Searcy (not his character, just Nick Searcy; he’s not a nice man). Unfortunately, Searcy gives a fantastic performance. At least as far as the script takes him, which isn’t very far because the teleplays aren’t good. Even when they’re not bad.

Twenty-five years after The Hot Zone, given all the advances in scientific knowledge, television narrative, streaming narrative, CG, whatever, you’d think it’d be the perfect time to adapt the book. But “The Hot Zone” ain’t it. I’m not sure Outbreak is much better, minute-by-minute, but it’s a lot shorter and a lot less disappointing.

Read the book.