Gibbs: Not as bad as you, Di Nozzo.
One of the best ways to assure that people pay attention is to endanger a character they love. Sometimes, writers need to be able to put characters in a situation that could potentially result in the apparently impending death of multiple characters, but where they can be in a relatively peaceful environment and where death will take a while to befall them. This allows time for Angst and Character Development.
Enter the Contamination Situation, in which a main character is exposed to or infected with something very bad, usually potentially fatal and the exposure/infection is a main focus of the episode. In television, unless a character experiences a near-death revelation that completely changes them or dies, these episodes are typically not Wham Episodes, but are still usually a big deal. In most cases, we're talking about November/ May sweeps episodes, not season finales.
The infection usually advances Character Development by causing the character to rethink their life. If one of the characters caught up in the ordeal is part of a Will They or Won't They? storyline, you can expect that relationship to take a front seat when this happens. This can result in a Love Epiphany. Other characters may also have poignant conversations about the fragility of life.
In television, this is most prevelant on crime and medical dramas, not surprisingly. The exposure/infection usually, but not always, happens to a leading character as opposed to a supporting character. If it is a supporting character, it will probably be Everyone's Baby Sister. The goal is for the audience to be emotionally invested, so more often than not, the infected character is a fan favorite.
There are also countless films based on this premise.
All Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
- During the Batman Contagion story line Robin was infected with the Apocalypse Virus ravaging Gotham and spent a couple issues hallucinating while slowly dying of it in the Batcave while Alfred watched over him and the rest of the Batclan tried to find a cure while preventing Gotham from tearing itself apart.
- In Contagion, Matt Damon's character is infected with a virus, but is immune to it. Later on, one of the main characters has been infected with a virus and uses this to test the cure. Another main character dies from it.
- In The Last Man on Earth, Vincent Price is the only person left and is immune to the virus turning people into vampires, but does have the virus.
- In I Am Legend, the dog is infected with a virus that turns him into one of the mutants. Robert Neville has to kill his dog.
- In 28 Days Later, one of the main characters' friends is infected, and she must kill him.
- In The Cassandra Crossing, one of the main characters, a doctor, is infected with a virus and is considered to be an engineered biological weapon.
- In Airplane! the mysterious sickness gets both the pilot and copilot.
- In the film Outbreak, Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey's characters both contract the deadly Motaba virus. One of them lives long enough to get the cure. It is, unfortunately, not Kevin Spacey.
- This is extraordinarily common in zombie movies, and not just to people who refuse to tell anyone. Perhaps the ur-example is Roger in Dawn of the Dead (1978) (Karen Cooper was in a similar condition in Night of the Living Dead (1968), but in that example, neither the audience nor the characters knew that a bite always means death). Roger's infection leads to a poignant moment in which he promises to "try...not to...come back."
- In The Kunoichi: Ninja Girl, Shinmu's plan is to deliberately infect the Koga women with a virulent sexually transmitted and allow them to be transported to the Iga village as Sex Slaves where they will infect all of the Iga men.
- In Aunt Dimity and the Lost Prince, Lady Barbara Booker relates how her childhood friend left his stuffed bear at her house the day before he came down with polio (this was in the 1920s, decades before any vaccine). She innocently tried to visit Mikhail to return the bear, and her father "went spare" and gave her a severe spanking. Although she was kept informed of his progress in recovery, "Basha" and "Misha" did not see one another again until Lori ad Bree's investigation prompted Barbara to pay an unannounced visit to Mikhail's family home.
- House had three: "Euphoria" in season two, where Foreman is infected from a patient, "Airborne" in season three, where House and Cuddy are on a plane with someone who is suspected to have meningitis, and Cuddy thinks she has it, and "A Pox on Our House" in season seven, where House is exposed to an contagious patient.
- Bones had one in season one ("The Man in the Fallout Shelter"). The entire team is exposed to an infectious body.
- Cam and Arastoo have each been exposed individually in different episodes.
- Chernobyl has this as a major plot element. The destroyed reactor is so radioactive that any attempt to contain it will contaminate the workers. The cleanup crew has to work in 90 second shifts on the roof to avoid dying of Acute Radiation Syndrome (a nasty way to go, and one suffered by several plant workers and firefighters), and although it's impossible to get an exact number, a fair chunk of the people who worked there ended up dying of cancer because they were irradiated at Chernobyl.
- Fringe did theirs in season two. Peter contracts a virus at a crime scene. He almost sneaks through the screening test by swapping his cheek swab for Olivia's clean one but as he's about to leave she notices he's bleeding from the nose (the first symptom of infection) and the doors are shut in his face.
- In an episode in season one, Charlie becomes an incubator for a supernatural creature.
- On 24, after Jack contracts a pathogen from a bio-weapon, the entire second half of the seventh season is a string of contamination episodes.
- The penultimate episode of the second season of NCIS, "SWAK", centered around Tony and Kate's exposure to the pneumonic plague, which was sent to the team in an envelope.
- In the late season four episode "Amplification" of Criminal Minds, Reid is exposed to anthrax by a serial killer.
- In the season four episode of Psych, "Death is in the Air", a deadly virus is stolen and released on a public place, Shawn then discovers that its part of a Poison-and-Cure Gambit from the company that makes the cure for the virus, as it was about to be closed down because the government didn't think the virus was a threat enough to fund the cure. The culprit dies before he can release more of the virus, since the cure dosage needed wasn more than he anticipated, but then Juliet gets infected with the virus when recovering the last batch, so they have to race to the culprit's hiding place for the rest of the cure before she succumbs.
- In an episode of Sliders, one of Quinn's friends gets the plague.
- Another episode had the Quinn of that world as the carrier of a disease for which there is no cure, as this world had never discovered antibiotics like penicillin. Arturo contracts the disease, but is able to create an antidote for it.
- In Helix, the series begins in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Peter Farragut's infection with a Synthetic Plague, turning him into Patient Zero and the ensemble's Tragic Monster, a carrier of The Virus who spreads it throughout the Research, Inc. where he works. The CDC rapid response team includes his brother Alan and his ex-lover Julia, both of whom want to see him saved despite interpersonal tensions and shared estrangement. Peter soon infects Julia, and she in turn, has to cope with realizing her fate and being the sole CDC member in quarantine with other infected.
- Emergency! had one. John Gage and Dr. Brackett are both infected with a deadly monkey-transmitted flu. Another fireman dies, but the discovery of a person who fought off the virus saves the main characters.
- On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in the November sweeps episode "F.Z.Z.T.", Simmons is infected with a virus carried by Loki's soldiers that will eventually cause her to explode, taking the entire plane (and all the other characters) down with her. After apparently failing to develop an anti-serum, she jumps from the plane in, what is intended to be a Heroic Sacrifice.
- The first few episodes of the fourth season of The Walking Dead have a deadly flu epidemic in the prison. Glenn and Sasha are among the characters infected, and Hershel is in the quarantine cell block tending to the sick. The Zombie Apocalypse adds another complication, as if those who die from the epidemic aren't dealt with, they come back, and not in the good way. It comes to a head in the fifth episode, "Internment," where a bunch of the supporting characters die and Glenn is barely saved.
- In a two-part episode of Castle, he is exposed to a toxin after shadowing Beckett on a case in D.C. The two had recently become engaged, so the shipping aspect was there, but it mostly served to allow him to work with her despite no longer being under Mayor Welton's discretion (Well, he's dying anyway, might as well let him feel useful).
- The Zoey 101 episode "Quarantine", Quinn develops a germ which she plans to use on a girl she believes is charming her boyfriend, it accidentally gets released into her dorm room causing her, Zoey, and Lola to become quarantined. the guys sneak in and are also quarantined. In addition Zoey has a date she can't get to. When they're told they are safe they deiced to play a prank on Chase by making him believe the germ killed them all.
- Used many times in early episodes of The X-Files.
- Happens to Bernadette in The Big Bang Theory. The rest of the gang serenade her through the window of the decontamination unit.
- In the Starsky & Hutch episode "The Plague," both guys are put in quarantine for 72 hours because they interacted with a man who died of the disease. They kill time by playing cards. Hutch turns out to be infected and nearly dies, while Starsky tears the city apart looking for a cure.
- In the Elementary episode "Through The Fog", Detective Bell finds an unattended bag at the precinct which starts emitting smoke. He tosses it into an interrogation room, isolates himself in the adjoining room and then orders that the entire building be placed under quarantine. It ultimately turns out that the bag is completely harmless and was part of an elaborate plot to steal the precinct's computer servers. The thief snuck in as part of the decontamination crew and made off with the servers without anyone questioning what he was doing.
- In Resident Evil 3, Jill Valentine becomes infected with the T-Virus. It makes her so ill that a second character becomes playable, and it is he who finds a cure.
- In The Last of Us, two important characters become fatally infected with Cordyceps. Sam pulls the usual schtick; the other reveals her bite in a bid to guilt Joel into doing what she believes is right.
- Stand Still, Stay Silent:
- As far as competent authorities are concerned, Reynir is in this situation merely from being in a The Plague-ridden Forbidden Zone while not being The Immune. This is enough to make his Little Stowaway situation with the crew last longer than anyone would have liked because they can't simply send him back to the safe areas. However, on a day-to-day basis, he's treated as a healthy non-immune who needs to be protected from catching the disease, rather than someone who could already be sick.
- At the end of Chapter 13, Tuuri, the one actual member of the crew who is not The Immune gets a Plague Zombie bite, which is a much higher risk factor than simply being present in their general living area. Knowing her actual infection status takes some time thanks to the disease having a Typhoid Mary stage. In the meantime, the precautions include keeping her away from Reynir (whom she has befriended by then) and having each of them have "their side" in their Awesome Personnel Carrier. However, Tuuri has obvious priority over Reynir in having access to the diver's seat and the radio, along with the liberty of going outside of the tank when needed. Reynir is the one who ends up in conditions closest to quarantine, as he ends up basically restricted to the dormitory and Chapter 15 has Mikkel heavily imply Reynir now only goes out during pre-planned walks.
- In Futurama, Fry has a dormant 20th C. strain of the common cold, which had been eradicated centuries earlier. It leads to the entire island of Manhattan being quarantined and then launched to the sun for good measure.