Why Aren’t There More Epidemiology Dramas?

Okay, I think we all know that I am a colossal epidemiology nerd, but, seriously, why aren’t there more epidemiology dramas on television? I can think of only one, Regenesis, which sadly isn’t that well known even though it’s amazing television; four seasons was entirely too short, if you want my opinion on the matter, and also, Canadian dramas are pretty darn good and you should be watching them if you aren’t already. That there’s only one epidemiology show among scores of medical dramas and forensics shows, though, is a crying shame, and I want to know why there’s such a lag in this area, because it’s a fascinating one to explore, as a synthesis between medicine, forensics, science, and of course very human issues.

I strongly suspect that many viewers have a fascination with obscure, creepy, and sometimes terrifying diseases and epidemics; they speak to the same sort of impulses that draw people to forensics. Epidemiology and forensics are puzzles that need to be solved, but the stakes in epidemiology are potentially much, much higher; instead of one murderer walking free, it’s an entire population of people vulnerable to a new disease, at risk of a frightening mutation that resists conventional treatment, or facing severe illness from contaminated food, medicine, and other products.

As in forensics shows, you’d get the excitement of lab work, with the corresponding total fictionalisation of what actually happens in scientific labs. Varicoloured beakers, suspiciously rapid PCR results, and all the rest could be yours in an epidemiology drama! Complete with a look at the technicians and support personnel who make a lab work, while also covering the people who travel to the field to collect samples, data, and more. Clearly this kind of content is appealing, because people are demanding it when they watch Bones, CSI, and all the rest; they want to see science, or at least, they want to see a vision of science and its potential.

And you’d get the medical aspect, as well, because epidemiology can also be about interacting with patients, collecting information from them and trying to treat them. It also incorporates medical mysteries; surely there’s a void here now that House is off the air, right? And obviously people love medical dramas because they’ve been lining up for them for a long time, so it’s not as though there isn’t a proved and established market here; something about a patient in need of treatment with a disease that just doesn’t make sense appears to be catnip to television audiences.

Furthermore, we know that the general public has an interest in epidemiology, disease detectives, outbreaks, and the like. Look at the slew of films and books on the subject that have captivated audiences, indicating that people are genuinely interested in learning more about how diseases develop, how they travel, where they go, and what happens to the people infected with them. The public and media interest periodically spikes with events like SARS and swine flu, but there’s always something underlying in the background, some desire to explore the possibilities there, from films to comics to fiction to nonfiction and documentaries. There’s something merciless and relentless about epidemic disease that intrigues people, even as they also find it horrifying and want to turn away from it.

I strongly doubt that developers and producers haven’t thought about doing epidemiology dramas; it’s not as though the idea is exactly revolutionary, after all. So the question is: why haven’t they pursued the idea? What’s standing in the way of a first-rate epidemiology drama produced in the States? Obviously scientific accuracy isn’t a concern, or we wouldn’t have CSI and scores of other shows. And clearly fears of showing graphic disease and death aren’t an issue, because they routinely show up on medical and forensic dramas.

And clearly it’s possible to keep viewers coming back for the human drama, as well, with a team of scientists involved in tracking and tracing disease. I don’t want to point at Regenesis again, but, well, the show is a great model of how it could be done, complete with the complex relationships between and around characters. There’s a lot going on there when it comes to the interpersonal drama, not just the larger drama of the diseases on the show, and it’s a driving part of the series. Of course, Regenesis also has things like complex multi-episode plot arcs which are truly delightful, and I know I can’t expect that much of US television, but it’s safe to say that it should be possible to have a team of epidemiologists loosely modeled on CDC teams with their own relationships with each other who are also battling emerging diseases.

Furthermore, there are scores of delicious real-world tie-ins to tantalise viewers, because emerging diseases are constantly developing and evolving. Writers have scores of fascinating plots to choose from, from lax regulations at the FDA contributing to the rise of food-borne illness to contaminated medications to puzzling new syndromes developing in various corners of the world and sending people off on complex chases through the lives of their victims to figure out what ties them together, and where it came from.

I’m lobbying hard here because I really want to see this happen; this has been a disappointing season in television, and I desperately want to see something that will actually excite me next fall. Epidemiology done right would definitely fit the bill, and might give me a new thirst for television; as it is, it feels like all I do these days is re-watch old shows and British/Canadian TV, because there’s nothing coming out of the US that’s exciting me, except for Revenge. I want proof that the era of great US television is not over, that my faith in the medium is not mistaken. Bring it, Hollywood.