After tackling the Ebola crisis in its first season, Nat Geo’s anthology drama The Hot Zone returns to reexamine the investigation behind 2001’s Anthrax mailings, which killed five people and infected several more. The six-parter offers a cut-and-dried look at the heinous crimes which took place in the weeks following 9/11. But the narrow approach is drawn out and dull, despite captivating performances from lead duo Daniel Dae Kim and Tony Goldwyn.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax makes an effort to touch on a monumental incident that usually gets overshadowed in 9/11 coverage, but it still doesn’t offer a lot of new information. This is a linear retelling of the case through the eyes of FBI agent Matthew Ryker (Kim), an amalgamation of the agents who actually investigated the letters. No time is spent fleshing out the lead character beyond his passion for finding the culprit. Dressed only in sharp suits and a perpetual furrowed brow, Kim can only do so much to save a relatively one-note script.
Matthew’s PTSD from witnessing the attack on the Pentagon is the only other facet explored here. But the CGI shot of him standing alone on the green grass—too close to the building—staring at the ruins is laughably bad. Kim is a terrific performer, but here he is saddled with revisiting Matthew’s trauma by simply holding his head in tough moments as the screen fades to shots of loose, rumbling change in his car. The whole subplot is tacked on for dramatic effect.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax’s single-mindedness in following the trajectory of the investigation at least keeps things focused on the subject at hand. There might be an advantage in not reading or knowing much about the case so there is some element of surprise. Episode one jumps right into the action as Anthrax spores are mailed to media offices in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida, and to prominent senators in Washington, D.C.
Matthew teams up with FBI profiler Dani Toretti (Dawn Olivieri) and rookie agent Chris Moore (Ian Colletti). The trio solemnly make their way through different cities, USPS warehouses, and hospitals. They’re shown to be the only ones on the right track with their theory that it’s not Al-Qaeda or other terrorist outfits, but an intelligent and lone white man targeting the victims. Enter Dr. Bruce Ivins (Goldwyn).
A top-level microbiologist at the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the real Dr. Bruce Ivins was a chief suspect for several years although he was never indicted. The Hot Zone: Anthrax attempts to dive into the character’s psyche as Bruce goes from seemingly cheery to clearly troubled. Unlike the monotonous writing for Matthew, Bruce’s personal and professional life gets enmeshed and scanned in detail. The show ends up being as much about his background as it is about the investigation.
Bruce’s deteriorating mental health and a tumultuous upbringing factor into Goldwyn’s top-notch portrayal, especially once Bruce begins to unravel, whether it’s in therapy sessions, conversations with coworkers, or while being interrogated. Goldwyn and Kim hardly share any scenes together, but their confrontation in episode five, “Stentor Roeselii,” is worth the long wait. The Hot Zone: Anthrax succeeds mainly when it dives into Bruce’s past; it’s one of the less explored aspects of the real-life story.
The show’s biggest drawback is its tedious writing. The poisonous bacteria’s effects are only spoken out loud, and rarely shown, which undercuts the urgency of the situation. The focus is heavily on FBI brass wanting to solve the case so President George W. Bush gets a win. There is hardly any emotional resonance among the characters.
For being set in the days and weeks after one of the most horrific terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, The Hot Zone: Anthrax’s storytelling feels too subdued and mechanical. Besides Kim and Goldwyn, the other performances, including a random cameo from Enrico Colantoni as Rudy Giuliani, are subpar. The show is effective as a ripped-from-the-headlines re-creation of the Anthrax case, especially for viewers who don’t know much about it, but it has little to offer beyond that.