How 'Hot Zone' and 'Chernobyl' Revisit Past Tragedies, "Relevant" Epidemics

Julianna Margulies stars in The Hot Zone -National Geographic Publicity- H 2019
National Geographic

From the resurgence of the Ebola virus to a "global war on truth," the central "disasters" are far from the focal points of the series.

When they first went to work creating the National Geographic Channel's limited series The Hot Zone, Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson were excited to dig into this true story about the origins of the Ebola virus. It was going to be a thrill, Souders recalls, "to get into the nitty-gritty of it all and realize that viruses were more terrifying than anything we could write as fiction."

That excitement lasted right up until a new Ebola outbreak in Congo started making news just as they started production in August 2018. Suddenly, it all got uncomfortably real and the excitement turned into urgency.

"Every month we were working on this, it became more and more relevant," explains Souders. "The epidemic kept growing and growing, getting worse and presenting new challenges for scientists, and it was clear this was a story that needed to be told."

Therein lies the key to taking a past tragedy and turning it into a current show. It can be difficult to scoot an audience to the edge of its seat, since they might remember the disastrous events and how everything eventually shook out. The recent headlines stoked the urgency for The Hot Zone, but it was a trickier problem for Chernobyl, HBO's five-part miniseries about the aftermath of the 1986 Russian nuclear plant catastrophe.

"I had no interest in making a disaster show," says executive producer Craig Mazin of the series, which stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard as government officials who responded to the crisis and Emily Watson as a whistleblowing scientist. "That's not what is relevant or moving now about the Chernobyl story. To me, it isn't about an explosion or the specific evils of one government regime compared to another. It's about the costs of very universal human flaws, about our inability to accept difficult truths and our tendency to embrace the fiction we're told."

That's why he believes "this story is very much worth retelling now." The way Mazin sees it, we're living in an era "where there's a global war on truth. Chernobyl is an allegory as much as it is a historical explanation of what happened. It's about what happens when you ignore facts and truth because they don't fit your narrative." In particular, his miniseries — a collaboration between HBO and the British television network Sky that debuted May 6 in both the U.S. and U.K. — highlights a scary parallel between the Russians' attempts to obfuscate what happened with their nuclear reactor and current politicians' denials of the impact of climate change.

"We can argue about it all we want, but climate doesn't care," he says. "It will continue to do what it does. In Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor didn't care what the [Communist] Party wanted. It just did what it does. In the end, what happened wasn't because there was one person with an evil intention. That's fairy-tale stuff. When we leave that realm, there is no bad guy. It's not a guy at all, but rather a collection of human frailties and a system that requires us to examine ourselves."

This sort of thinking elevates a well-chronicled disaster into a deeper discussion, a tactic The Hot Zone, which stars Julianna Margulies and Noah Emmerich, also employs. Peterson couldn't help but notice a growing "climate of isolationism and nationalism across the country," which he felt was the exact opposite sentiment of that expressed by the scientist heroes at the center of The Hot Zone. They were trying to stop an illness for the good of humanity, not just for their country. For better or worse, this gave the series (which debuted two episodes May 27 and the remaining four May 28) even more immediacy.

"When we stop seeing all the people on the planet as one global community, we lay ourselves bare to this sort of situation happening again," he says. "So with Hot Zone, while we wanted to entertain people and tell the real story of what happened, we couldn't get into discussing the real event without realizing how it related to what's happening now."

This approach can make limited series like The Hot Zone and Chernobyl more than just productions to watch. They become experiences that viewers can feel long after the credits roll. For instance, after making a show about the spread of a dangerous virus, Souders admits that "every time I'm in a public space and see a railing that I know has been touched thousands of times every week, I have a little hesitation."

Meanwhile, Mazin, who previously wrote films in the Hangover franchise as well as The Huntsman: Winter's War, hopes that after watching Chernobyl, audiences will be as motivated to stand up for a better world as he was after making it.

"Those of us within the species that prize truth more than we prize comfort or narrative are going to have to fight," he says. "That's what [the miniseries] taught me. If you stop fighting, I can assure you Chernobyl happens again. I don't mean a nuclear plant blowing up. Nuclear power isn't the villain here ­— it's the cost of systemic lies. Emily Watson's character in the series is an extension of my personal fervor when it comes to this. We must be free to disagree, free to express our dissent even when it's not popular."

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.