The plague -- a relative of the "black death" that nearly wiped humans from the planet in the 14th and 15th centuries -- is the ostensible subject of "Quiet Killer," a pretty good made-for-TV movie premiering tonight on CBS (at 9 o'clock, WBAL-Channel 11).
But a subtler plague is perhaps the deeper part of the peril projected: a slow epidemic of urban malaise, characterized by poverty, prejudice and political indifference. The film suggests that if one plague doesn't get us the other might.
Based on the novel "The Black Death" by Gwyneth Cravens and John S. Marr, the movie stars Kate Jackson as the chief epidemiologist of the ultimate urban host site: New York City. And the one-time "Charlie's Angel" offers a quietly persuasive portrayal.
Viewers should be forewarned of some pretty intense scenes in the early going.
The first victim is a teen-age girl returning home to an empty apartment, presumably sick with a bad cold or flu. But soon she is delirious and coughing up blood, and her shock at realizing she is seriously ill is quickly echoed and re-echoed -- first by hospital emergency room doctors who cannot figure out why they are losing her, and soon by horrified pathologists who figure it out.
Viewers, of course, have already seen the people with whom the sick girl had come in contact, including a teacher and a philandering U.S. Congressman (Howard Hesseman), a limo driver and the Hispanic doorman of her building. All get sick, and so do the hospital personnel who treated her.
Like ripples in a pond, the spread of infection moves outward.
The urban ailments it soon encounters include a garbage strike -- rats that can spread plague-carrying fleas are thriving on the ample food supply -- and the imminent arrival in town of the Democratic National Convention.
The city's mayor (Al Waxman) and his political adviser, however, want to go slowly in attacking the disease, in part because of the perception it is initially confined to ethnic people or the disadvantaged.
Some false notes are sounded -- including an overly obvious AIDS note and a budding love interest between Jackson's widowed physician and her assistant (Jeffrey Nordling). But on balance, "Quiet Killer" clips right along with a grim, gripping scenario.
DOLLAR DAYS -- Maryland Public Television says the spring pledge drive that ended Sunday raised promises of the largest total of any single past MPT fund-raiser.
By drive's end, 9,846 viewers had made pledges totaling $715,801, well above the $600,000 goal and a 23 percent increase over the last March fund drive, in 1990.
And viewers who voted on Sunday's Members' Choice evening programming chose to see "Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel," which had run the previous weekend during the fund drive.