Avian Flu Season

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Jan Thijs/Courtesy of NBC

If you ever doubt that pop culture needs Stephen King—his Mayday radio transmissions from the horrific heart of childhood, his bad trips down Freudian mind shafts, his belly flops in body parts—consider this convenient roundup of escapisms, conjured up by networks for “sweeps.” The difference between King and everybody else is the difference between Cujo and Mickey Mouse.

Let’s start with everyone else. Although Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America arrives with a disclaimer pointing out that, so far, there has been no transmission of the disease from human to human, what the film sells in its first five minutes is panic and pandemic. So while we watch Chinese sterile suits exterminate 1.2 million birds, we also follow an American businessman into a bottling plant, where he picks up the virus from an assembly-line worker and then Johnny Appleseeds it to a guy in a Hong Kong airport bar, most of his trans-Pacific flight, and all of Virginia. We are then asked to root for Ann Cusack as the businessman’s widow who organizes her neighborhood to care for the sick and survivors; Justine Machado, as a heroic New York City nurse; Scott Cohen as the Virginia governor who wises up to the big picture only after losing his own son; and Joely Richardson, as the disease-control super-doc who goes all the way to Africa just to find out that it’s too late.

It would be nice if any of these characters developed in any direction, but only the virus mutates. And only the French are to blame. The French? Something about obstructing delivery of a vaccine that won’t work anyway, but network TV is not about to miss a chance to slime the soft-on-Saddamites.

10.5: Apocalypse picks up where 10.5 without an Apocalypse left off in 2004, after Kim Delaney kept California from falling into the Pacific. This time President Beau Bridges needs her to save the country from splitting down its Midwest midriff. Her estranged geologist-father Frank Langella is indisposed in Las Vegas because … but never mind the ludicrous coincidences. As in Fatal Contact, the disasters have more character than the characters. The earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, and nuclear reactors are models of F/X ingenuity. We are encouraged to believe that continental drift, after 60 million years, has decided to reverse itself. And we are asked to forget everything we ever knew about global warming and the oil lobby, government science in indentured servitude to power-grubbing pols, and the incompetence of FEMA.

Now spend three hours in the Nevada desert with Stephen King’s Desperation, where Ron Perlman, a zombie cop calling himself Tak, hijacks strangers, locks them up in his corpse-strewn town, kills some for entertainment, and uses a select few to breed his inner Foul Fiend and Old Scratch. Arrayed against this embodiment of evil are Tom Skerritt, a novelist crossing the country on a motorcycle with secrets in his saddlebag; Charles Durning, the town veterinarian and drunk; Annabeth Gish, a brand-new widow who’s feistier than Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley; and Shane Haboucha, who loses his parents, goes to the movies, and finds God. We will spend time at the mouth of hell, looking into a fiery pit. But what makes Desperation special-effective is writing, acting, direction, and the sense that these people know something.

Yes, we’ve been here before with King: blocked, addicted, unhappy writers, like Skerritt, whose fans hold them hostage and whose pseudonyms turn into stalkers; parallel worlds at risk, if not from Tak, then from mutants and usurpers; animal and insect kingdoms obedient, like Nevada’s wolves and crows, to dark powers or vengeful forces. Reference is made in Desperation to Vietnam, Chinese labor in Old West mines, and lynching. Jokes are made about Dean Koontz, Puff the Magic Dragon, and Ann Coulter. Every King production has history and texture as well as menace, which is why he’s always better than disaster porn. For more than three decades, he has obsessed about growing up and old, spousal abuse and child molestation, poverty and alcoholism, homophobia and rape, repressed memory and precognition, the seductiveness of evil and the randomness of fate, airports, high schools, hospitals, cancer, grief, other worlds, and sacred quests. He thinks we’re fragile. I think he’s right.

Fatal Contact: Bird Flu In America
ABC. Tuesday, May 9, 8 p.m.

10.5: Apocalypse
NBC. Sunday, May 21, and Tuesday, May 23, 9 p.m.

Stephen King’s Desperation
ABC. Tuesday, May 23, 8 p.m.

Avian Flu Season