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In TV, as in film, everything needs to be a franchise, even if it means attempting to franchise such nebulous frameworks as “Authorities look for famous killers” or “Notorious stalkers.”
It’s no surprise, then, that National Geographic decided to take its 2019 miniseries The Hot Zone, based on a Richard Preston book that was very specifically about hemorrhagic fevers, and turn it into a disease-of-the-year format. And it’s funny in a not-so-funny way that NatGeo’s The Hot Zone: Anthrax actually feels less like the first season of The Hot Zone and more like a lackluster blending of previous randomly anthologized properties Manhunt and Dirty John.
Instead of the visceral combination of body horror and biology trivia that was the first season, The Hot Zone: Anthrax is a weakly structured game of cat-and-mouse combined with a rudimentary psychological profile of an insecure creepy white dude. There’s something to be said for Tony Goldwyn’s unsettling performance and for Daniel Dae Kim’s sturdy work in a rare leading role, but this six-episode limited series is thoroughly skippable.
The disappointing thing is that there’s an interesting idea at the root of Kelly Souders & Brian Peterson’s approach here. In 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, five people were killed in a series of anthrax-by-mail attacks. We were already crushed with paranoia, and the idea that any envelope could contain a white powder that could kill us just added another layer of fear. For a few weeks, anthrax was all anybody talked about.
Then we stopped. As I watched The Hot Zone: Anthrax, some details flooded back to me, but prior to watching, I couldn’t have told you what the resolution of the anthrax panic had been. Did we get the perpetrator? How? And how did we collectively lose track of the story?
These are all fascinating questions that don’t exactly go unanswered here, but they get answered in the most formulaic way possible. Episodes begin with an obligatory, “Certain characters, scenes, and dialogue were imagined or invented for dramatic purposes,” but I would be curious where the line is between “invented” and “imagined,” since no imagination is evident. Instead, what was one of the more complicated multi-year investigations in the history of the FBI has been boiled down to a little detective work from a few heroic FBI agents whose names could be “Man Composite Agent,” “Woman Composite Agent” and “Young Composite Agent People Can Explain Things To.”
In this case, Matthew Ryker (Kim) is the central figure. He’s a microbiologist-turned-agent and he was near the Pentagon on 9/11, leading to PTSD that marks his only real character trait. Dawn Olivieri is Dani Toretti, a behaviorist so under-written that at one point when she goes over to Ryker’s apartment and takes a beer from his fridge, I rationalized it with, “Of course she’s mooching off him, she doesn’t have a home of her own.” Ian Colletti plays the third agent, whose personality is limited to a willingness to help.
Dylan Baker appears as their FBI composite boss, who likes to make references to Robert Mueller and occupies space between being helpful and being obstructionist. Baker, incidentally, is one of those actors who always makes things better. At the same time, his arc in The Americans was a better version of The Hot Zone than NatGeo could ever hope to make, so perhaps having him here to force comparisons isn’t ideal.
Goldwyn is actually top-billed as Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist whose mustache, disturbing behavior around women and basement gun range make him immediately suspicious.
It’s basically three people going through emails and following a maximum of two or three intelligible clues to a presumed perpetrator straight out of a Criminal Minds episode. Conflict arises not from their investigation, but from the underlying desire to go to war with Iraq, one in which the truth was ultimately a secondary concern. Somehow the case took seven years to crack, which may be why most viewers won’t remember how it ended (and I guarantee that most viewers also won’t understand how the series conveys the passage of time). Occasionally, a TV in the background mentions a piece of news, and I was like, “Oh, that happened in 2004 so it must be a few years later.” Otherwise, I never would have guessed.
With bureaucratic resistance as the main villain and a trio of limitedly imagined composites as our heroes, The Hot Zone becomes the Bruce Ivins story in its second half. With his God complex and assortment of mommy issues, Bruce fits every lone suspect stereotype and gives Goldwyn lots of juicy material to play, much more in a character-acting vein than the sort of threatening or swoony preppy alphas his acting resumé is built on. Goldwyn has so many different twitchy, manipulative, operatic moments that I began to feel sorry for Kim and his much more constrained range of intense-but-heroic attributes. I liked that Olivieri at least has some sarcastic lines of dialogue, though if you asked me to give any other detail about her character, I could not.
In addition to the very real Ivins and the very fake composites, The Hot Zone: Anthrax features a couple of distracting famous character cameos that serve no purpose other than distraction. Harry Hamlin appears in two episodes as Tom Brokaw and while he isn’t exactly well cast, there’s a logic to applying his ’80s hunkiness to a synthetic news anchor persona. I’m unable to similarly justify the presence of Enrico Colantoni, even more miscast in one episode as Rudy Giuliani.
The first season of The Hot Zone was a proficient thing, capitalizing on how nightmarishly cinematic Ebola is. One onscreen Ebola-based death and you know exactly what Ebola is, exactly how it’s spread and exactly how it kills you. Heck, with its swirly structure, Ebola is even a photogenic virus. Here, the writers and directing team can’t crack anthrax. It makes people get pale and cough, and in our COVID-conscious moment, that’ll be plenty to turn some viewers off immediately, but these six episodes are barely informative and only marginally scary. In other words, the season doesn’t make a very good case for future installments of this franchise, no matter who plays Dr. Fauci in The Hot Zone: COVID.
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