National Geographic television show ‘The Hot Zone’ features KU, K-State connections

photo by: Contributed photo

Nancy and Jerry Jaax speak about the National Geographic show "The Hot Zone" during a panel at Kansas State University on May 7, 2019. The show tells the story of the Jaaxes, center, during the first ebola outbreak in the U.S. in 1989. The show was created by writers Brian Peterson, far left, and Kelly Souders, far right.

A new television series focusing on how the U.S. Army dealt with the first outbreak of one of the most contagious and deadliest viruses on its soil features several University of Kansas and Kansas State University connections.

The six-part National Geographic miniseries “The Hot Zone” dramatizes the real-life events of the first ebola virus outbreak — the Reston virus, one of six types of ebola strains — in America in 1989. Nancy and Jerry Jaax, who were serving in the Army as veterinarians at the time, were thrust into the action as Nancy worked to learn about the virus contain the outbreak.

Jerry Jaax, who earned his bachelor’s degree at KU before attending K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the series had several connections to the university, but his wife Nancy Jaax, who is portrayed as the main character of the series, attended K-State for both her undergraduate and veterinary studies.

“She’s a K-Stater through and through,” Jerry Jaax said, speaking to the Journal-World on behalf of the couple.

Along with Jerry’s connection, KU alumna Kelly Souders served as executive producer, writer and showrunner for the show. Souders has made a career in television production, writing and producing the Superman-based show “Smallville,” the Stephen King series “Under the Dome,” and several others.

Souders did not respond to the Journal-World’s requests for comment.

For full measure, the production also used the help of the Jaaxes nephew Michael Smit, who is an infectious disease doctor based in Los Angeles, Jerry said. Smit earned his medical degree from KU’s medical school in Kansas City, Kan.

The television series is based on the 1994 New York Times best-selling book with the same title by Richard Preston. The Jaaxes, who were prominently featured in the book, will be portrayed in the show by Julianna Margulies and Noah Emmerich.

Margulies may be best known for her roles in television shows “ER” and “The Good Wife,” while Emmerich has appeared in several supporting roles, such as the television series “The Americans” and the movie “The Truman Show.”

When asked about the series during a panel discussion at K-State earlier this month, Nancy Jaax called seeing Margulies portraying her as “surreal.”

“You see this poster with this person in uniform with my name on it and it’s a little crazy but a lot of fun,” she said.

Jerry told the Journal-World he thought it was flattering Emmerich was portraying him and he found Margulies’ portrayal of his wife to be very accurate.

“She really caught (Nancy’s) character and the way she operates,” Jerry said. “When Nancy was in the service she was a no-nonsenese, ‘let’s get it done’ scientist…. I think the characterization they got of her is good.”

Holywood actorJulianna Margulies portrays Nancy Jaax in a promotional poster for the National Geographic television show “The Hot Zone.”

The Jaaxes met with Souders prior to the production of the series to discuss technical information related to the story. The Jaaxes were also invited to attend premiere events with Souders and the other producers, which Jerry said was an indication that the writers thought highly of the Jaaxes and were trying to represent them well.

“She’s really nice and she was very impressive,” Jerry said of the experience working with Souders.

Of course the show is s a dramatization, Jerry said, so it does not portray the outbreak and work to contain it to the absolute truth of how it occurred. But he said the Jaaxes thought Souders and the other writers did a great job making the story interesting and portraying the important themes of the event.

“In general, we thought the miniseries had the right message, which is that you have to be ready for emerging infectious diseases,” he said. “Back in 1989, that was really the heart of the story. Nobody was prepared and nobody had a mission to respond to something like this.”

In the K-Sate panel discussion, Souders said making the show was difficult for her and her writing partner Brian Peterson. While they were focusing on a story about the outbreak, the show also focuses on the Jaaxes and how their family life was at stake during a tense period.

“They have an amazing marriage that feels like a partnership that you don’t come across very often, and that was very important to us,” Souders said. “At the same time we are task with making a drama… (We wanted) to keep the fact that they are dealing with ebola and there are really high stakes in every moment.”

Souders said she began her writing career working on stories about superheroes, referring to “Smallville.” When she first read “The Hot Zone” the book, she said the Jaaxes experience brought those superhero qualities to real life.

“To read a story about people who are putting their lives at risk and willing to go in and rush in to help, to us was a really wonderful way to write about (those qualities) but in a real-life, grounded situation,” she said. “That was a thrill for us.”

After their stint in the Army, the Jaaxes returned to Manhattan, where Jerry served in research leadership positions and Nancy participated in several infectious disease research initiatives at K-State, according to the university.

The Jaaxes are now retired and residing in Lenexa, but Jerry said he’s happy the show is a reminder of Nancy’s important work while also explaining to the public the importance and need of that kind of work.

“Overall we think it’s a very positive message that we have to be ready for infectious disease, either emerging, reemerging or intentional,” he said. “You have to have scientists who know what the heck they are doing, you have to have facilities to work on dangerous infectious disease and you have to have funding to do it too.”

All six parts of “The Hot Zone” airs on National Geographic from Monday through Wednesday, beginning at 8 p.m.

Contact Dylan Lysen

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