Skip to main content

Cable's Viral Apocalypse Now

Potentially apocalyptic viruses will infect the storylines of several new basic-cable series in 2014.

From an Arctic-based disease outbreak (Syfy’s Helix) to a vampire-tinged virus threatening New York City (FX’s The Strain) to a sea-bound naval crew searching for a cure to a global pandemic (TNT’s The Last Ship), network executives aim to entice and thrill viewers with fictional depictions of catastrophic events that might not be all that far-fetched.

The success of AMC’s zombie drama The Walking Dead — the most-watched cable original series — and NBC’s Revolution show that today’s viewers can identify with storylines revolving around the potential end of civilization.

“For the first time in the history of humanity, I think we’re more than acutely aware of the fragility of humanity,” Syfy president Dave Howe said. “We can name 10 ways that we could all die tomorrow that are plausible and meaningful, and we’ve all lived through experiences that have brought that home to us.”

Whether it’s Hurricane Sandy decimating parts of the East Coast last year, the horrific typhoon that killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in November or the fear of pandemics like the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” virus, viewers are acutely aware the tales spun by these apocalyptic-themed series that may not be that far away from reality.

“There’s the continued emergence of new strains of viruses that we’re always being told on the evening news are going to wipe us out,” Michael Wright, president and head of programming at TNT, which will debut the Michael Bay-produced The Last Ship in summer 2014, said. “These shows speak to a real state of the national psychology. I think there is a fair amount of fear and worry out there for a very good reason.”

Despite a strong stock market and a comfortable existence for most U.S. citizens, there is an undercurrent of concern, fear and vulnerability today, magnified by shows such as The Strain, said Emmy and Peabody award-winning writer Carlton Cuse, showrunner for the FX series.

The Strain, produced by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, tracks a mysterious viral outbreak in New York City tied to an evil strain of vampirism.

Cuse, who’s also executive producer of A&E’s Bates Motel and produced ABC’s Lost, said The Strain (debuting on FX next July) does more than foreshadow an impending apocalypse. It adds a second, mythological component delivering a more chilling narrative of vampires, romanticized in so many recent horror-themed scripted shows.

While shows like Syfy’s Helix — which debuts Jan. 10 and follows a group of scientists hunting down a lethal virus found in the Arctic — are meant to portend the end of civilization, Howe said it’s important to give humanity a fighting chance to survive.

“You have to have a level of hope that is underlying,” he said. “Yes, you can be as dark and depressing as you like, but you must come up for air periodically and there must be a long arc that has the potential of safety and rescue and refuge. If you don’t have that, chances are that people won’t stick with it, because it’s too depressing.”

TNT’s Wright said a well-written, apocalyptic-themed series can have an uplifting effect. “There is something about the end of the world that is fascinating to human beings,” he said. “The great thing about storytelling is that it can be very cathartic to viewers. To see people surviving when the odds are so stacked against them, the stakes are so huge and it’s truly about life or death, viewers love to go on that journey and experience that cathartic relief at the end.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.