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BBC’s 'Smallpox’ Makes Scary Scenario Seem Real

In the weeks and months following Sept. 11, 2001, there was much anxiety over what would happen if the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., were followed up by bioterrorism. FX probes those fears in depth with Smallpox, a fiction film that takes the guise of a documentary.

The first offering in a six-film deal with U.K. production house Wall to Wall, Smallpox (which initially aired as Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon on BBC2) paints the following what-if scenario: In mid-2002, smallpox victims start turning up in New York, then London, until finally there’s a worldwide pandemic.

It seemed so accurate, according to published reports, that President Bush requested a copy.

The show plays like an episode of Frontline or your typical BBC documentary. Archival footage — both staged and real — and interviews with actors portraying such characters as the chief of New York’s Office of Emergency Management are interspersed with interviews with such real bioweapons experts as Dr. Ken Alibek, the Soviet army defector.

Many small flourishes add to the authenticity. News reports use the actual anchors and sets from the BBC, Sky News and WNBC-TV in New York. Notables such as the Rev. Al Sharpton also appear in fictionalized interviews.

But in a few areas, the eye for detail falls short. Some “Americans” don’t hide their English accents as well as others. And one vignette about a New York family who moves to London, only to be hit by the epidemic, veers away from the film’s penchant for accuracy by steering toward the melodramatic.

In a sign that they got the mock-documentary idea right, Smallpox can get a little dry and boring at times. Conversely, though, it also makes you think.

Smallpox is set to bow Jan. 2 at 8 p.m. on FX.