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Viruses Aim to Take Over World in 'Zone'

September 03, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Viruses of the world unite!

"The Burning Zone" is as close to a B-movie as a weekly series gets, a steady patter of moderate fun whose elite bio-crisis team, led by the gifted but eccentric Edward Marcase (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), faces a master virus seeking to mobilize other viruses under its leadership in tonight's premiere on UPN.

Well, you know how that goes. One virus is bad enough, but get a bunch of them together in the same room over drinks, and trouble!

We open in a Costa Rican rain forest that whispers (don't ask), where three anthropologists inadvertently unleash a previously unknown virus that has been dormant for ages while "waiting to destroy the human race."

The encounter leaves one of the trio dead, another wandering zombie-like with bleeding eyes and the third seemingly mad and under wraps at a U.S. research center where the master virus now inhabiting him informs Marcase in an electronically amplified voice, "Humans are our natural hosts. They express our consciousness. In return, you live for hundreds of years."

Seems like a fair trade, except that the master virus wants to use its human hosts to gather other deadly viruses for an assault on Earthlings. It's up to Marcase and the other members of his just-assembled elite team--molecular geneticist Kimberly Shiroma (Tamlyn Tomita) and security specialist/plague expert Michael Hailey (James Black)--to protect their species from this viral genocide. Hence, the race to create a sort of super-antibiotic before it's too late.

Whatever is sizzling in "The Burning Zone," it isn't the characters. Marcase, Shiroma and Hailey are the prototypical bickering-but-brilliant--to say nothing of great-looking--elite force. They're tediously trendy, from Hailey's shaved head to Marcase's grubby stubble.

All of which perfectly fits a series whose self-mocking corniness is its greatest appeal. Never more so than when virus-inhabited Bleeding Eyes hitches a ride on the road, only to bolt away in terror when a godly white glow envelops the entire vehicle after the gabby driver attributes his rebound from disease to the Lord. So maybe if Marcase holds up a cross. . . .

Understand, this is not about some abstract bacteria that may have lived thousands of years ago on Mars. This is serious, for even if good should triumph in Episode 1, how many other viruses (gulp) are still out there?

* "The Burning Zone" premieres at 9 tonight on UPN (Channel 13).

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