Why TV Drama Is So Obsessed With Pandemics

Several new TV shows this year revolve around the idea of a deadly virus that grips the world, destroying much of the population. Enthusiasm for these shows is downright infectious.

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And now for a warning. Television is in the grip of a terrifying pandemic. Or maybe an obsession with pandemics is a better way to put it. This year has seen a feverish spike in dramas where the antagonist is a deadly virus. These shows include "Helix" on Sy-fy, "The Strain" on FX and "The Last Ship," which starts Sunday on TNT. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered why the enthusiasm for these programs is so infectious.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: You can probably trace this outbreak to one of the most popular shows of the past few years.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")

ULABY: In the first season of "The Walking Dead," an epidemiologist, the last surviving one at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, explains how this virus turned the zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WALKING DEAD")

NOAH EMMERICH: (As Dr. Jenner) It invades the brain like meningitis. The brain goes into shutdown, then the major organs. Then death.

ULABY: Monstrous mutant viruses also confront poor CDC scientists on the show "Helix," where the disease rips through an isolated polar research station.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HELIX")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: I've been around some nasty hot agents but I've never seen anything like that.

BILLY CAMPBELL: (As Dr. Alan Farragut) No one has seen anything like this.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: You still thinking retrovirus? Looks more like some kind of hemorrhagic fever.

ULABY: Things are even worse on "The Last Ship." The ship is a Navy destroyer that spent months in radio silence on a top-secret mission. Then a message from the U.S. president.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST SHIP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Most of our population, all of our Armed Forces is dying or dead. We have no allies. We have no enemies, just a world of sick, desperate people.

ULABY: Shows where nearly everyone on the planet sickens and dies appeal to scholar Nancy Tomes.

NANCY TOMES: Oh, I couldn't be happier.

ULABY: Tomes studies the history of epidemics. She wrote a book called "The Gospel Of Germs." She says science-fiction and horror often reflect contemporary fears. So during the Cold War, for example, we saw movies about big, scary, nuclear-related monsters. Now she says we worry about our bodies turning against us. In an age of gluten allergies, genetically modified food and mad cow disease.

TOMES: From what you buy in the grocery store, to what you may be breathing when you walk down the street.

ULABY: Not to mention the viral spread of terror cells in viruses attacking our computers. But we at the United States have not faced a major pandemic since AIDS. A little removal from fictional threats is useful, says writer Chuck Hogan. He says viruses are metaphors and perfect villains. The show he co-created is called "The Strain." It starts next month on FX.

CHUCK HOGAN: One of the major themes I think that we play with is the mixture of sort of the ancient and the modern.

ULABY: And what's more ancient or more implacable than viruses and diseases?

HOGAN: They can't be reasoned with. And you can't negotiate with them, and they're hard to avoid. And yet, it used to be something terrible happened in a city, it was fairly contained.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Here we go.

(SIRENS)

ULABY: In "The Strain" an airplane lands at JFK in New York. Almost everyone on it is mysteriously dead. A pair of CDC epidemiologists finds evidence of a viral outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE STRAIN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Look at that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It's looking for a host. It's desperate.

ULABY: There's another dimension to viruses, says Hogan, that amplifies their horror.

HOGAN: You're most likely to either receive it or pass it on to a loved one.

ULABY: In "The Strain," the virus turns people into vampires. Other dramas, like "The Last Ship," portray pandemics more realistically.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST SHIP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The birds.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: They're just the carriers. They pick up the virus from the melting permafrost. We finally found their feeding ground.

ULABY: In "The Last Ship," says its co-creator Steven Kane, climate change is responsible for releasing a deadly primordial virus that infects 80 percent of the planet's people.

STEVEN KANE: We spoke to scientists as we were doing our research and we told them our premise. They said, well, that's our worst nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST SHIP")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: He's been exposed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Put him back in the suit, we'll quarantine him on the ship.

TOMES: Look at the disease cowboy.

ULABY: Scholar Nancy Tomes loves that so many of these shows about pandemics feature scientists as heroes.

TOMES: Watching them in the lab with their - all their little vials and trying to make vaccines or putting on their hazard suits.

ULABY: When there's so much skepticism about science in some quarters, Tomes appreciates the idea that TV could inspire kids to become epidemiologists. Who knows? We might need them. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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