With apologies to King Kong, monkey business has never been scarier than in The Hot Zone, National Geographic's tense if preachy six-part docudrama (airing in two-hour blocks over three consecutive nights) based on Richard Preston's cautionary bestseller.
"Why are we not more prepared?" laments Lt. Col. Nancy Jaax (the formidably no-nonsense Julianna Margulies), who spends much of her time convincing superiors and her colleagues at USAMRIID — the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases — that an outbreak at a nearby monkey quarantine facility near Washington, D.C., is serious. Ebola-virus-with-90-percent-fatality-rate serious.
The Hot Zone splits focus between Jaax's 1989 investigation, which has the feel of a real-life Andromeda Strain (although hobbled by maudlin career-vs.-family subplots) and flashbacks to 1976 in Africa, where her discredited mentor (Game of Thrones' Liam Cunningham) first tracked the deadly disease.
He considers Ebola "a living monster," raising the stakes in the final, and most memorable, night of the miniseries, when Jaax's handpicked team finally goes inside the facility—which, adding to the horror, is located adjacent to a playground—to contain the outbreak. (Notably, Jaax herself is left out of the first wave of the mission, blocked by her overprotective husband, played with stoic empathy by The Americans' Noah Emmerich. To say she's furious about this is an understatement.)
In this creepy abandoned lab, they come face-to-face with those infected monkeys, and while disaster is averted, the nightmare lingers on. (Case in point: a release this week from CBS News from correspondent Debora Patta, reporting on health center workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Ebola has killed nearly 1,100 since August.) Some monsters are harder to kill than others.
The Hot Zone, Monday–Wednesday, May 27–29, 9/8c, National Geographic