Though the quarter has focused mostly on scripted drama of the recent past, I was still driven to focus my final paper on a topic near and dear to my heart: reality television. The classic arguments about reality TV are well-known by now. How real are they? How much is staged? Are the producers guiding the whole thing? These common concerns are problematized by the recent proliferation of “lifestyle reality”, TV shows that capitalize on that universal truth that fact is stranger than fiction. These shows explore the lives of people who are somehow different than “us”, living in some fringe culture or alternate world that the American viewing public will find fascinating. For some reason, we are driven to understand why some people make their living purchasing abandoned storage lockers, or why some mothers take their toddlers to beauty pageants, or how housewives in Atlanta spend their leisure time. These are loosely themed by Wikipedia as “Documentary Style” reality programs. But a strange divergence has recently developed within this category. Reality programs have told us how things have been (1900 House, Colonial House) and how things are (the aforementioned), but what about shows that ask the viewer to imagine how things might be in the future?
Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic reality TV differ from the reality TV we have come to know in that they examine the subjects’ preparations for or reactions to a hypothetical post-catastrophe world. Doomsday Preppers (National Geographic) and Doomsday Bunkers (Discovery) each examine the “prepper” subculture, which consists of members who are convinced that the end of the world will come in their lifetime, and thus devote time and resources to prepare for their own survival in the event of a disaster that will end the World As We Know It. The Colony is framed as an experiment, and places ten “survivors” within an artificially constructed environment that mimics a post-apocalyptic world and subjects them to the hypothetical challenges that would face survivors in the event of a global societal collapse.
It is interesting to consider the consequences of reality television that confronts a reality that is only hypothetical. Doomsday Preppers adopts the mindset of each prepper profiled in order to discuss the specifics of their preparations, only to dismiss the likelihood of each doomsday scenario handily at the end of each segment. They weigh their subjects’ theories equally, from a nuclear holocaust or global pandemic to an electro-magnetic pulse or Chinese financial takeover. The producers end the first season by saying over voiceover that the events imagined on the show are all highly unlikely. The Colony is presented in an aggressively hypothetical tone, voiceovers by experts always beginning with, “In the event of a catastrophic event…” or something similar. It is marketed as an “experiment” about “what would happen if…”. Each season takes place after a hypothetical global viral outbreak, though only the second season forces the survivors to act out that specific events (through quarantines and constant fear of ‘infection’). This is one of the more “likely” doomsday events, but The Colony stresses that basic disaster preparation is necessary in case of natural disaster, social unrest (like the footage of the LA riots they often use as stock footage), or other difficult, but not world-ending, scenarios. Both of the programs act as a sort of hyperbole. The producers do not want you to believe that the world is going to end, but they hope that maybe you can glean the tiny bit of preparedness knowledge you might need in the unlikely event of an emergency. An episode of Doomsday Preppers (which I haven’t been able to find online yet) follows three prepper families as they flee Hurricane Sandy. It’s unlikely that they found themselves in need of their 3-year food stores or assault rifles, but their “bug-out bags” with a few days worth of food and water probably made things a little easier when they had to leave in a hurry.
Each of the shows has an overlying style that attempts to make the hypothetical world more real to the viewer. Though the producers have a knowledge that the events they portray as real risks are actually very unlikely to occur, they use common traits of post-apocalyptic scripted fiction to connect with our cultural imagination of a post-apocalyptic world.
- Explicitly proclaimed ‘experts’
- Hypothetical speech and all-encompassing language (EOTWAWKI)
- Images and film of various past disasters
- Non-diagetic militaristic/scientific screen overlay
- Post-apocalyptic style (font, color schemes) in common with P-A scripted dramas
These specific stylistic issues will be addressed more fully in my final paper.
I hope that you all use some of your winter break leisure time to enjoy some of these apocalyptic reality programs, particularly considering that when the day dawns on December 21st, 2012, we could all be little piles of dust. Of course, that’s highly unlikely. But you might as well be prepared for the worst, eh?
For those interested, my in-class presentation can be found here. Episodes of The Colony are available on Netflix, and Doomsday Preppers is widely available through certain means. The first season of The Colony is better, and every episode of Doomsday Preppers is top notch.