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Few screen principles are more beloved than the Conspicuous Non-Coincidental Cough, a representational sibling to the She Must Be Pregnant Barf. It’s the trope that holds that while in reality people are pretty much constantly sneezing and clearing their throat, in film or television, if you cough it’s a near-guarantee that you have cancer or consumption and you’re moments away from death. Bonus tragedy points if, after coughing, you hold a white linen handkerchief to your mouth and reveal a dot of blood. It’s no surprise that in our golden entertainment age of Angry Birds: The Movie and Ouija Board: The Movie somebody finally decided to just make Cough, Cough — You’re Dead: The Limited Event Series.
Premiering Tuesday and technically based on a Belgian format, The CW’s Containment is an occasionally terrifying, mostly formulaic tribute to the primal unease that comes from watching somebody coughing up blood. Over and over and over and over again. It’s also a reminder of why the virus thriller has long been a successful film genre, but examples of well-executed longform versions are fewer.
AIR DATE Apr 19, 2016
Adapted for The CW by The Vampire Diaries mastermind Julie Plec, Containment opens on “day 13” in some sort of chaotic, post-apocalyptic Atlanta, but then quickly zips back to the germy genesis of the apocalypse. It takes very little time for the coughing and bleeding to begin, but along the way we’re introduced to some of our various characters, several loosely connected but sure to cross paths as things worsen. There’s Katie (Kristen Gutoskie), a young teacher taking her class, including her son, on a field trip to a hospital, a hospital where very bad things are happening. Data recovery specialist Jana (Christina Moses) is about to move in with cop Lex (David Gyasi), but she’s having second thoughts. Jana also very briefly dated Lex’s partner Jake (Chris Wood). Then there’s a pregnant teen (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence), an annoying blogger (Trevor St. John) and an assortment of various loosely developed supporting players.
The show’s other, uncredited, star theoretically ought to be the spreading virus itself, but Containment is not an Outbreak-style “Stop the disease before it’s too late” thriller about intrepid doctors and whatnot. No, this particular virus is one-dimensional and vicious. It makes you cough. It makes you bleed. It makes you die. Over the seven episodes sent to critics, the main medically inclined character, Doctor Cannerts (George Young), is almost laughably useless, alternating between killing mice and marveling at the virus’ complexity and efficiency. If there’s anybody out in the world doing research and tests, we don’t see it. There’s a reason Containment isn’t called Cure or Triage or Hospice. It takes almost no time for Health and Human Services’ bigwig Sabine Lommers (Claudia Black) to swoop in and impose a “cordon sanitaire,” shutting down a section of Atlanta around the disease’s epicenter, blocking it off with fences and shipping containers, putting a few thousand Atlanta residents in lockdown as people are coughing and dying in increasingly large numbers. People in Containment keep saying “cordon,” but not nearly enough say “cordon sanitaire,” which would be what I’d be saying all the time between the coughing, bleeding and dying.
The show is actually, then, not about solving a health crisis. It’s about isolation, imposed and unquestioned martial control, the decline of basic freedoms and how far humanity is from descending into a Warriors-style anarchy in which roving gangs of tweakers with skull masks and gangbangers with bandanas and machine guns are battling for the minimal provisions as graffiti begins to cover the walls and bodies start to pile up. As the series progresses, the virus becomes close to an afterthought, but bigger conspiratorial concerns are beginning to be raised: Was Patient Zero truly an easily scapegoated Syrian national? Are the government’s repressive instincts helping or hurting the people in the cordon? Who might be benefiting from the chaos?
I had some interest in the series Containment started out to be and became increasingly less amused by the series it seems to be becoming.
The pilot, directed with a reliably sure hand by David Nutter, and early episodes come close to being the scary, disturbing Walking Dead prequel that Fear the Walking Dead has conspicuously failed to be, albeit with the dead staying dead, at least for now. The pilot is a breathless rush from the earliest signs of illness to unmanageable terror. It’s a “Cough and die first, ask questions later” approach that is a mixed blessing. Start too slow and with insufficient urgency and people complain of boredom, and while there may be some frustration at the repetition here — so much coughing up blood — monotony isn’t the same as dullness. But if you rush ahead from “Oh look, somebody’s really sick” to “If we don’t cordon off the city, it’ll be an extinction-level event” in only 42 minutes, you’re stuck with the frequently hilarious spectacle of developing characters and character relationships in a frivolous way against a nightmare backdrop. It’s the “Why the heck are they playing Monopoly when people are eating each other?” problem that helped cripple Fear the Walking Dead and, wouldn’t you know it, Containment has a long scene in which characters are trying to remember details from Monopoly so they can make their own boards, as bodies are being burnt in an incinerator down the hall.
So as much as I was interested in the overall stakes of Containment, the sweaty, goo-goo-eyed flirtation between Jake, who finds himself in charge of all police forces within the cordon but also seems to have whole days in which he barely looks outside of the hospital, and Katie gave me “He’s smoldering as he tosses bodies in a furnace” giggles. And just about anything involving the tweakers and gangbangers was also a mess, as the containment of the title goes from macro, with the cordon, to an assortment of less plausible hostage situations in apartments and grocery stores.
Shooting Atlanta for Atlanta is an almost revolutionary decision in this industry of runaway productions, but Containment then went and cast an assortment of Brits, Aussies and Canadians who are uniformly unsure if they’re struggling to do Southern accents, struggling to do American accents or just struggling to cover up their native accents in any way possible. Sure, this is something that’s always a personal peccadillo for me, but it’s frustrating when somebody like Gyasi is giving an assertive performance that wavers whenever he opens his mouth, ditto with Mangan-Lawrence and Black. And, as was also the case in NBC’s non-regionally cast Game of Silence, its small supporting roles are played by local actors, so you’re stuck with heroes who talk like they’re from anywhere but Atlanta, but then have random thugs and hillbillies with drawls. None of the lead performances are explicitly poorly played, but they’re often poorly read, and when the dialogue strays from virus-driven intensity to conversational and emotional, that becomes a problem. Wood, coming off a memorably dark turn on The Vampire Diaries, looks more comfortable than anybody else, but even he can’t sell bits of earnestness in the sixth and seventh episodes.
This is a genre that works well in the movies because in two hours, you can aim at a clear destination, whether it’s “Nearly everybody dies” or “We found a cure.” But TV, even in a limited series like this, requires elongation, and Containment is too often a warning about what happens when you establish a thrilling core and then have to spin wheels. Some viewers will find the bracing start carries them through the implausible romance, illogical government response, one-dimensional journalism and wackadoo-tweakers-in-the-air-vents silliness. I lost interest by the seventh episode, but may still check back in to see if the show recovers that lost early momentum. And, of course, some viewers will probably quit after the 20th person expires while coughing blood.
Cast: David Gyasi, Christina Moses, Chris Wood, Kristen Gutoskie, Claudia Black, George Young
Adapted for American TV by: Julie Plec
Airs: Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)
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