Imagine that a man staggers into a hospital in your city with what seems like a bad cold and consults with a doctor before vanishing in fear. (It later turns out that he’s an illegal immigrant.) The doctor, after showing symptoms almost immediately, dies soon after, of what proves to be a highly lethal and hitherto unknown virus. It’s hard to say how things would go from this point, but your city could find itself facing what Atlanta faces in a single-season TV drama from a few years back: the quarantine of the hospital and an entire section of the city. Just like that, something very much like the outbreak of coronavirus (officially named COVID-19) that’s ravaging China and worrying the rest of the world could begin playing itself out here.
The scenario I just outlined comes from Containment, which was adapted from a Belgian series called Cordon by Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries) for the CW in 2016. I watched it back then but forgot all about it until earlier this year, when events in China suddenly seemed to be replaying the whole thing. As the 13-episode drama unfolds (it’s now available for streaming on Netflix), doctors race to figure out what this new disease is, where it came from, and how to stop it. Meanwhile, the legal authorities, from local cops up to the Department of Homeland Security, struggle to establish trust and maintain control, and ordinary people try to keep their lives from being totally upended. No one goes into the quarantined area, and no one comes out, to quote a mantra that’s often repeated; food supplies have to be lifted over the top of the barrier by crane, more people die each day, and the few policemen and hospital workers who happen to be inside must make do.
This being a CW drama, a good deal of attention is paid to the youth and vitality and relationship status of the characters. Early on, there are many appraising glances and much talk about who’s got a partner, who’s looking, and the like. (If you think dating is tough, try dating in an epidemic—that’s a nightmare!) Geographically, this show is much narrower in scope than globe-spanning dramas such as Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (much talked about lately in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak), but it ends up finding a similar network of connections among its characters, who include a schoolteacher, a handful of policemen inside and outside the containment area, a doctor, a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend, a data-retrieval specialist, a muckraking journalist, a federal official, and a number of others. And the CW aspect of the show, its love-amid-the-outbreak angle, doesn’t really hurt. This counterbalances what some saw as the flaw in Contagion, that its ever-shifting focus on efforts to fight the disease made connecting with its people a challenge. Containment doesn’t downplay the medical drama, but with 13 episodes at her disposal, Plec is free to give a little more priority to the characters.
Besides, there are other differences. The overall situation diverges from Contagion when it’s discovered that the virus didn’t emerge from nature but was created—somebody made it, thus giving the show an enemy, beyond the virus itself, to be identified and defeated. There’s more than one reason why someone might deliberately devise a superbug; the reason given in this show, and a few other things as well, strike me as less than fully plausible. Nonetheless, Containment got under my skin. The more I saw of it, the more I expected to see, every time I left the house, people wearing surgical masks and gloves, litter in the streets, scavengers, and a few armed gang members capitalizing on the lack of police presence.
Contagion and Containment share something important: In a sense, they’re good for us. The shivers and thrills we get from vicarious encounters with danger can work as a kind of inoculation—if we find ourselves facing the real thing tomorrow, we won’t be totally unprepared. They can be an aid to empathy and understanding as well. To quarantine a neighborhood or a city—what does that mean? It means, in effect, that you may end up on one side of a fence while someone you know or love is on the other, as happens to more than one set of characters in the first episode of Containment. The news media have given us glimpses of various personal stories from the COVID-19 outbreak, including that of the doctor, Li Wenliang, who warned of the disease, was reprimanded by authorities, and died of it on February 7. But the picture continues to be difficult to grasp because the numbers are so big and because, despite the virus’s spread beyond China to at least 24 other countries, we in the United States are still able to think of this epidemic as a problem of people remote from us. Containment brings it home.
A version of this story originally appeared on the author’s WordPress blog.