If you’re old enough, you may remember how the AIDS crisis played out in the United States in the early 1980s, with the government slow to respond to the burgeoning epidemic, mainly thinking it was a lifestyle disease. But how did other countries respond? Unspeakable, a new miniseries produced by the CBC and SundanceTV, shows that Canada’s response, especially when it came to high-risk groups like hemophiliacs, was even worse. Read on for more…
UNSPEAKABLE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Vancouver, 2015. A man speaks at a conference about how, as a reporter, he feels he failed the Canadian public about the AIDS crisis when it began three-plus decades before. But most of all, he feels he failed his son.
The Gist: That man is Ben Landry (Shawn Doyle), a former journalist. We flash back to 1967 to see Ben and his wife Alice (Camille Sullivan) find out that their baby son Peter is a hemophiliac, needing to take coagulating agent every time he has a cut or bruise. Cut to 1982; 15-year-old Peter (Jared Ager-Foster) play street hockey with his friend Andy Girard (Ryan Grantham), who also has hemophilia. He seems to be a normal, happy teen, taking a new coagulating agent that was just introduced and is much more convenient to use.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Margaret Sanders (Sarah Wayne Callies) is reading a New York Times story about how the CDC in the US has identified a new immunity-suppressing pathogen (then called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID) might get past the screening involved in blood donations. She knows that the coagulating agent that her hemophiliac son Ryan (Spencer Drever) uses is made from plasma from thousands of donors, many of whom are in the US. She asks her husband Will (Michael Shanks), who works for Canada’s Department of Public Health, to look into it.
Ben Landry reads the same report and brings it to the editor at his paper in Vancouver, citing the fact that it could threaten hemophiliacs in Canada; the editor dismisses it, saying there are virtually no cases of this new disease in the country. But in Montreal, the head of the country’s hemophiliac society checks himself into the hospital with symptoms consistent with the disease that is now called AIDS. A resident, Dr. Christos Tsoukas (Paul Piaskowski), who specializes in diseases that suppress T-cell counts, is called in and begins an autoimmune study on hemophiliacs who are taking the new coagulating agent. He’s finding some consistencies with the quickly growing number of AIDS victims, who are generally thought to be gay, Hatian, IV drug users or hemophiliacs.
Margaret wants Ryan to go back to the old coagulating agent, but his doctor dismisses her, telling the teacher to “go back to teaching the ABCs.” Will gets stonewalled on why the Red Cross isn’t telling hemophiliacs to stop using the agent but refusing to take blood from any high-risk groups. And Dr. Tsoukas can’t tell Ben anything on record. While all this is going on in the 1982-83 timeframe, Andy’s personality changes, he gets sick and dies in short order, and Dr. Tsoukas tells Ben that Peter’s T-cell count is slightly under normal, leading Peter to think he has AIDS.
Our Take: Thirty-seven years later, it’s appalling to think about how poor the US government’s response was to the AIDS crisis when it first started, mainly downplaying the threat and derisively designating it a disease that’s due to lifestyle instead of a potential epidemic. But what Unspeakable, produced by the CBC and Sundance, showed us is that Canada’s response was even worse. They wouldn’t publicly identify cases, no matter what the high-risk group was, even though by the beginning of 1983 there were more than a dozen cases. And, in order to not induce panic, they refused to tell hemophiliacs to stop using a coagulating agent that could have been contaminated.
So the historic aspect of the show is fascinating. But because this miniseries has a lot of time to cover, basically from 1982 until the present, they skip through those first couple of years, seeing one official and doctor after another downplay the threat, made us feel like we were watching a TV-movie about the crisis from approximately 1987, when people were still thinking of AIDS as a “gay disease”.
Perhaps we have to skip through those first years in order to get to the heart of this story. But showrunner Robert Cooper (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency) and his staff perhaps needed more time to really get into why even the Red Cross wouldn’t help hemophiliacs in those early days.
Sex and Skin: Not that kind of show.
Parting Shot: Over a cover of “Mad World,” the Landrys attend Andy’s funeral. In the car, Peter says, “I don’t care what you say. I know I’m going to die.”
Sleeper Star: Despite being the best-known actor in the cast, Sarah Wayne Callies doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in the first episode. It feels like Margaret Sanders will be at the forefront of people who want a ban on the coagulating agent that might be contaminated, so it’ll be interesting to see what she does going forward.
Most Pilot-y Line: Someone says in a dinner scene with the Sanders, “When you think of the Red Cross, you think first responders, disaster relief.” Was the term “first responders” popular in 1983? We don’t remember hearing it much until maybe 2001, right after 9/11.
Our Call: STREAM IT for the subject matter. But you’ll have to get past Unspeakable‘s awkward pacing and clumsy writing first.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company’s Co.Create and elsewhere.