The shadow of illness and mass disease is frightening enough in real life that seeing it on TV can sometimes be too much to handle, especially if the series is particularly detailed in the way it shows sickness - be it fictional or real.
The way a television show represents an illness, disease, or pandemic changes depending on the style of the show. For instance, the ER smallpox episode handles things differently than the way the characters on Deadwood deal with the infectious disease, and the same goes for the outbreak of the Spanish flu on Downton Abbey.
In just about every TV show that depicts a disease - be it Star Trek: Voyager or Little House on the Prairie - they all show that the best way to stay safe and healthy is to quarantine. If only the characters on these shows could just stay in and watch the scariest episodes about diseases on TV.
A Smallpox Outbreak Terrorizes 'ER'Photo: NBC
The Season 8 finale of ER, called "Lockdown," puts Carter and Abby in direct contact with a dangerous virus. The hospital is quarantined as the staff tries to take care of their normal caseload, as well as a busload of senior citizens. It’s a perfect storm, and at its eye are two children.
The illness is similar to smallpox and, while sitting in quarantine, the doctors start to show signs of exposure. Though it doesn’t look as gross as some of the illnesses on this list, it’s a stressful and realistic vision of ground zero of a viral outbreak.
- Original Airing: May 16, 2002
- Season: 8
- Episode Number: 22
- Series: ER
- Photo: Fox
“F. Emasculata” is one of the most upsetting hours of television from the '90s, which is saying something for an episode of The X-Files. Aside from being a little too close for comfort in the era of COVID-19, this episode is extremely gross.
When two prisoners infected with the disease escape from prison, they infect the surrounding area with a nasty, face-erupting virus that really puts the TV-14 guidelines to the test. And there are no easy answers at the end of the episode. Even though Mulder puts the last of the infected prisoners down, he never manages to trace the illness to its real source.
This is one of the most visceral TV episodes about disease, and if you're easily freaked out, it's one to avoid.
- Original Airing: April 28, 1995
- Season: 2
- Episode Number: 22
- Photo: House / Fox
Doctor House just can’t catch a break. While he’s on a trans-polar flight from Singapore to New York, people keep getting sick. Along the way, he tries to prove that there's not an outbreak of bacterial meningitis threatening to leave most of the passengers in body bags.
This episode is absolutely terrifying, from a man vomiting a mysterious pink liquid on the plane to everyone on board having to be quarantined. However, the most disturbing thing about the episode is that there’s no virus and, aside from the vomiting man, everyone else is experiencing psychosomatic symptoms.
- Original Airing: April 10, 2007
- Season: 3
- Episode Number: 18
'Deadwood' Gives A Horrifying Glimpse Of SmallpoxPhoto: HBO
"Plague" is a super realistic look at smallpox in the 19th century. When the disease comes to Deadwood, a "sick tent" is built and men are dispatched for a smallpox cure, yet everyone remains out of their depth. The episode doesn't just deal with the nasty nature of the illness, but also the way that regular people often have to bear the brunt of taking care of the sick.
The patients are dirty and gross, but they never veer into David Cronenberg territory. Instead, the episode simply offers a realistic portrayal of caring for people who are gravely ill with little hope of survival.
This look at illness and disease is filled with existential dread, especially when you try to parse why some people are affected and others aren't.
- Original Airing: April 25, 2004
- Season: 1
- Episode Number: 6
- Series: Deadwood