Television: Trouble Is On the Air

Two disaster movies visit ancient history and the near future to tell disquietingly relevant stories

THERE ARE FEW SURER WAYS TO WIN ratings than to level a city in a fictional earthquake or crash an asteroid into the planet. Mindless TV disaster epics are a sweeps staple. But toward the end of the cold war, there flourished a high-minded subgenre: the Very Special Disaster Movie--VSDM. In the '80s, such shows as The Day After, Special Bulletin, Threads and Testament told what-if stories about nuclear attacks and their aftermaths. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the networks' interest in atomic catastrophes disappeared, even if the nukes didn't.

Today, given the interest in catastrophe--man-made or natural, radiological...

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