Killer Outbreaks: TV Review

Animal Planet
Animal Planet's jazzed-up docu-series has pulled out all the tried-and-true techniques to deliver a weekly dose of high-anxiety television.

Animal Planet's jazzed-up docu-series has pulled out all the tried-and-true techniques to deliver a weekly dose of nightmare-fodder programming.

There's no doubt about it, the world is a scary place. That's especially true, however, when you add a spine-tingling soundtrack and Friday the 13th mood lighting for good measure.

Killer Outbreaks -- Animal Planet's new, jazzed-up documentary series that's sure to boost the sales of surgical facemasks, has pulled out all the tried-and-true techniques to deliver a weekly dose of high-anxiety television.

Developed by executive producer Liz Bronstein (Whale Wars, Jockeys, Joe Millionaire) Killer Outbreaks is part NOVA, part CSI. Taking its lead from such nightmare-fodder programming as National Geographic's Disasters at Sea and History's The Next Plague, Bronstein seems intent on keeping us in a continual state of panic. As the title suggests, the weekly dose of worry deals specifically with those nasty little pathogens intent on doing mankind harm. From anthrax to avian flu, from salmonella to monkey pox, the germ war is on, big time.

"Whether a bio-terrorist threat or an attack by Mother Nature, the terrifying fact is that the first step to the decimation of the world's population could begin with the infection of just one person," the narrator in the series premiere assures viewers.

The first doom-and-gloom segment focuses on Vado Diomande, a 44-year-old African dance instructor from the Ivory Coast living in Manhattan's West Village.

During a 2006 performance at a Pennsylvania college, Diomande's wife, Lisa, notices a funny look in Vado's eye moments before he collapses and is rushed to a hospital.

Alternating between interviews with the real-life Lisa and re-enactments portrayed by look-alike actors -- who convincingly demonstrate Vado's writhing agony, Lisa's desperation and the hospital staff's furrowed brows -- the search for what appears to be killing Diomande is not without dramatic effect.

But when a battery of tests confirm that anthrax contamination is responsible for the viscous fluid filling Diomande's lungs, the stakes get higher still. Rather than a one-off, freak illness, the nation could be dealing with Gotham-scale bio-terror.

Enter the hotshots at the Centers for Disease Control, the show's unlikely heroes, who, as the narrator explains, "must maintain the public health safety for the 307 million people in the United States." Featured prominently on Killer Outbreaks, they're also charged with delivering killer quotes.

First, we meet epidemiologist Sean Shadomy, the guy in charge of investigating anthrax cases for the CDC. We know he's good at what he does because the actor who plays him in the re-enactments shows intense focus as he picks up a ringing phone, listens and takes notes. But the real-life Shadomy whiffs at his first chance to ramp up the fear quotient.

"The CDC has been involved with the investigation of every case of anthrax that has occurred since the anthrax investigation unit at CDC was first initiated in 1955," Shadomy says as if angling for a salary bonus. What else would the anthrax investigation unit do? But I digress.

Even though you can't quite recall thousands of New Yorker's dying in an '06 anthrax attack, it is suspenseful watching the CDC detectives hunt down the source of the deadly spores. They burn all of the possessions in the Diomande's apartment, then hit Vado's DUMBO storage locker, where -- SPOILER ALERT -- they discover anthrax-infested African goat hides used for drum skins.

In a last-ditch effort to save Diomande's life, the CDC brings out a never-before-tested vial of greenish immunoglobulin that has cost the U.S. Government $144 million to develop.

Fortunately, the serum works, though this means that the show's first bit qualifies as neither deadly nor a full-fledged outbreak. If that resolution fails to adequately tickle your panic button, the grim tale of how dozens of girls were sickened after eating salmonella infected Nestle Tollhouse cookie dough that fills Killer Outbreaks' next half-hour just might.