We’ve reached that time of the year when television drama goes into the broadcast equivalent of stand-by mode as sporting events, films and reruns take over the airwaves for the next couple of months. Fortunately there are still one or two exceptions to the rule, and BBC4’s Saturday night subtitled Eurofare strand once again rides to our rescue with a new-to-the-UK production to help tide us over until September.
Having previously majored in output from the Scandinavian countries, the slot now returns to Belgium (which previously gave us Salamander) for a 2014 ten-part series in Flemish called Cordon, the story of an outbreak of a deadly disease passed on by touch and bodily fluids which erupts without warning in the middle of Antwerp. The authorities seek to contain it by barricading people who have been exposed into a hastily set up cordon sanitaire around the affected area. No one can go in or out; even police officers like Jokke Deelen (played by Wouter Hendrickx) who were going about their normal duties are now forced to remain inside, and anyone who seeks to escape runs the risk of being shot in cold blood by the police and army officers manning the barricades rather than chance the spread of the disease into the general population.
The core idea of the deadly pathogen is chillingly believable: we’ve seen real life outbreaks of SARS and Ebola and worried over the possibility of avian flu jumping species into humans, so accepting this aspect of the show takes no effort whatsoever. Placing the outbreak in the middle of a modern big city (and one broadly new and unfamiliar to a British TV audience) also works well. The show uses its urban setting to good effect, shooting it with almost documentary-level levels of realism through the use of hand held cameras. The direction is naturalistic and only occasionally allowed to show off, but there’s a terrific sweeping and swooping shot early in the first episode in the foyer of the National Institute for Contagious Diseases and the show manages to insert similarly nice touches here and there throughout the rest of the show in a way that doesn’t distract or undermine the reality mise-en-scéne but which rewards those who enjoy seeing inventive and creative mastercraftsmen at work.
Admittedly there is a rather big leap of faith that one needs to take to buy into the series – and that’s in the nature of the cordon itself. The setting up of the quarantine zone by piling up freight containers to block the major thoroughfares in and out of the area provides the show’s signature visual, but I personally struggled to believe that it would be possible to set up an effective cordon in a modern big city. There would surely be too many ways through buildings, across rooftops, down small side passages and under the ground using sewers and tunnels for the authorities ever to be able to able to hope that this would be effective for more than a day or two without drastic lasting alterations to vital city infrastructure. That thought kept distracting me a few times every episode, but it’s simply one of those basic series premises that one has to consciously decide to buy into or else there’s simply no point watching. Every show has them – face-changing alien in a time-and-space-travelling blue box, anyone? – and you either accept this and apply a series-spanning suspension of disbelief on the point or you don’t, and if you don’t then there’s no point in watching. If you do then there’s no point carping about it later.
So okay, I’ll buy that one. It’s the show’s joker card and now that it’s played it has to be careful not to abuse its audience’s forbearance and generous spirit. Unfortunately the writing tends to do this on a fairly regular basis with some really clumsy and clichéd plot contrivances.
The biggest such stretch of credibility comes with the idea that the authorities could react so quickly to a couple of employees of the NICD coming down with the sniffles, so that within a couple of hours the powers that be can reach a decision and enact a completely effective blockade around a large area of Belgium’s second-biggest city. Does that seem likely to anyone? I’d be amazed if any nation on earth could manage that sort of response time in 24 hours let alone same-day, but of course the cordon premise makes no sense if people have already had the chance to end their working day, go home to the suburbs, spend time with the family and come back the next day because by then all hope of containing the outbreak of a deadly communicable disease in one concentrated geographical area is gone and with it your basic series premise.
Actually though I’m still also willing to give the show a pass on this point, too, mainly because there’s a hint that the nice, kind grandfatherly NICD director Dr Cannaerts (Johan van Assche) might not be entirely on the level about the source of the outbreak, which has been initially traced back to a Patient Zero in the form of conveniently newly-arrived illegal Afghan immigrant Anwar Utman Kel (Mokhallad Rasem). Sure enough he is one of the first to die in a very gory fashion, but before that two doctors at NICD who administered Anwar some ‘routine shots’ (on his first day in the city after being smuggled into the city through the container port? How efficient of Belgium’s state health system…) have also died within an hour or two of exposure. That timeline seems wrong compared with every other case of infection so far seen, and so does the speed and scale of the government’s response to what had not at this point been proven to be a transmittable disease – unless Cannaerts and the others are hiding something and know full well what is going on. Is this some sort of social or military experiment that’s got out of control? Adding to our suspicions is the small matter of the red lunchbox that Anwar was seen holding onto so tightly, which must be significant based on the number of times it has been included in the episode recap at the top of each new instalment.
That potential conspiracy dimension is what helps to keep the story nicely simmering away in the early stages – if nothing comes of it in the remaining six episodes of the story and the whole thing really is as clumsy as it appears to be on the surface then my feelings about this show will be markedly downrated. But I have a fair degree of confidence and certainly enough to suspend disbelief for the time being, because in other aspects the show had been very careful about putting the requisite medical and scientific foundations in place concerning the rules governing the virus’ transmission from host to host and how short-lived it is when its human carrier dies. The infection is pitched somewhere between Ebola and AIDS in terms of how easily it can be passed on, and airborne transmission is an absolute no-no or else there would be no stopping it in time.
It’s a shame that the show doesn’t make more dramatic use of these rules of transmission once they’re put in place – at least, not so far. There are occasional moments to make you jump when someone unthinkingly reaches out a hand to someone else’s face, or close-ups of a sweaty forehead or a runny nose, but there’s not yet been a clear case of seeing where an on-screen contact from one person to another has subsequently resulted in infection. Maybe that’s for the best – it maintains the uncertainty about what’s going on and who may or may not be infected without any of the Hollywood clichés that attach to this sort of genre. We don’t know any more about who might be infected than the characters do which means that we’re just as liable to fall prey to paranoia and suspicion as they themselves are. Perhaps the more Hitchcockian approach to the path of the disease will be used further down the line, but at the moment the show is more interesting in establishing its characters and the fatalities to date have been largely relegated to extras and smaller cameo parts rather than any of the main cast.
The latter include schoolteacher Katja (Veerle Baetens) who finds herself stranded at NICD with a party of children, because bringing a class of pre-teen kids on a school trip to a highly secure and sensitive laboratory full of pathogens is such a great idea, obviously. As well as a budding relationship with Jokke, Katya was also at the centre of one of the more ham-fisted early plot points of the show so far when her own son Quinten (Jelte Blommaert) goes missing from the group’s improvised living quarters. Based on no evidence at all, Katya deserts the other children and wrangles her way into the bowels of the medical facility whereby she happens across a significant number of dead bodies in the basement along with a suspicious-acting Cannaerts himself. It has all the subtlety and believability of a Scooby-Doo moment, and short of Cannaerts ripping a mask off his face and cackling in the gloomy shadows it couldn’t have been any more heavy-handed.
Also trapped within the cordon are retired couple Bert and Micheline (Hugo Van Den Berghe and Frieda Pittoors), pregnant teenager Ineke (Zoë Thielemans) and her shop-owning parents, bullied schoolboy Tyl (Ricko Otto) and his sister and their parents, and computer data recovery specialist Jana (Liesa Van der Aa) and her co-workers in a hermetically sealed state-of-the-art penthouse office suite.
Jana happens to be in a relationship with police commissioner Lex Faes (Tom Dewispelaere) who is in charge of the civilian side of the cordon but who finds himself increasingly marginalised by the arrival on the scene of the military forces. Repeatedly reassured by hard-nosed minister Sabine Lommers (Mieke De Groote) that he has the government’s full support to do all that’s necessary, it’s clear that she regards him as the perfect scapegoat to have to hand to throw to the wolves the minute things start to fall apart. And to be honest, the number of mistakes that Lex soon makes and his rapid crisis of conscience over the whole thing really do combine to make our nominal hero protagonist into something of a non-credible liability for all concerned.
But you can kind of forgive people making mistakes in this sort of situation, where the rulebook goes out of the window and everyone is well outside of their comfort zone. The bungling of the barricades and the food supplies by the authorities actually seems more true to life than the rapid and so-far successful imposition of the cordon itself. However there’s a rather mechanical and contrived way to the progression of these incidences, with the failure of the food provision now leaving the dwindling supplies in the hands of gun-toting Eastern European black marketeers who have sprung up out of no where and are now free to extort any price from the rest of the trapped populace while they spend their freetime leering over Ineke for their own personal entertainment needs. Clearly the next step will be some failure in power supplies to the affected area which will send the inhabitants further down their Lord of the Flies reversion to prehistoric barbarism, while just a few hundred meters away on the other side of the exclusion zone life seems to continue remarkably unaffected.
The show’s biggest problem and failure of characterisation comes in the area of the media. On the evidence of the first four episodes, the production team and lead writer Carl Joos appear to have no concept of how the press works and moreover have the most scathing and hostile view of journalists themselves. I myself have had many bosses that I can’t say I’ve been hugely fond of, but none have been as woefully inept and clueless as the news chief on display here who never knowingly recognises a news story in front of his nose. However it’s the character of ‘hard-hitting, maverick’ reporter Leo Gryspeerts (Koen De Sutter) that the series really reserves its purest venom for as he goads the government spokespeople by continually insisting on referring to the cordoned area as a ‘ghetto’ to invoke Nazi-era treatment of Jews. He then recklessly inflames racial tensions by identifying Anwar as Patient Zero based on inconclusive camera footage that no journalist in the world would go with, before setting up his own private blog to post any and every bit of gossip, video and photos of people dying and corpses being burned in the cordoned-off area regardless of the panic it will engender both inside and outside the affected area. The way that Gryspeerts is filmed as he sits at his keyboard grinning and salivating over the spike in traffic and comments pouring in to his site is done in exactly the way that you would shoot a paedophile masturbating over a particularly abhorrent child porn site.
It’s a shame that the show takes this unsubtle demonising approach because the cartoon villainy sits poorly alongside the hard-won sense of documentary realism elsewhere. Moreover it means that we miss out on some important aspects of the debate that would genuinely accompany a crisis like this about the rights and responsibilities of what the media should be doing: should they tell the truth, the whole truth – or do they have a duty not to make matters worse? Gryspeerts’ over-the-top vileness means that when the government makes the decision to crack down and sever all communication (mobile phones, internet) in and out of the cordon, it comes over as the only sensible course of action and indeed why didn’t they do it much sooner given that trapped individuals have been using email and social media to co-ordinate escape attempts with those on the outside. But is is such a good idea? Is it even lawful? And what new levels of panic and riots will being cut off incommunicado for an extended period now create among those trapped behind the blockade?
With just four of the ten episodes down it’s clear that thing are going to get a lot worse before the end. Matters are not helped by the fact that Jokke appears to be the only policeman left in the cordoned area, despite the fact that there’s a prison smack bang in the vicinity. Oh, did I not mention the prison until now? Well the script certainly has, on several occasions, so you can probably tell that this is going to be a big factor as things start to really unravel.
And that clunkiness of the plotting really summarises the programme as a whole. When it’s good, Cordon is really very good with great production, strong acting and a gripping sense of slow-burn tension all in a genuinely interesting and new setting. But the plot and character development feels forced, lurching from the contrived to the clichéd via the downright inconsistent. The scripts could probably have done with at least one or two more drafts to polish the show overall and smooth out some of the biases and prejudices that ill-suit the whole. It will certainly be interesting to see what the inevitable US remake (written by Julie Plec and directed by David Nutter) does with the basic premise when it airs under the new title Containment on The CW and whether it learns from the occasional missteps of the original or just adds even more glossy Hollywood tropes, tics and quirks of its own to the mix.
In the meantime, despite my reservations and complaints about some aspects of the show, I’d certainly rate it as well worth a watch and will be sticking with it through to the end. At the moment it’s rather a slow burn, tense rather than thrilling, and I hope that will change as things head toward the climax. If it does then it will have earned the several free passes that I’ve been inclined to give it to now, and I earnestly hope that it doesn’t let me down.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Cordon airs at 9pm on Saturday evenings on BBC4. The US version is due to air shortly. The series does not currently appear to be slated for DVD home release as of the time of writing of this review.