There’s a new modifier on the TV grid, and we should all be afraid.
Television has long been full of “Americans” (“American Restoration,” “American Chopper,” “American Hoggers”) and “Extremes” (“Extreme Marksmen,” “Extreme Makeover,” “Extreme Couponing”) and “Tops” (“Top Gear,” “Top Chef,” “Top Shot”). In recent weeks, though, an interloper has staked a claim: “Doomsday.”
Last month the National Geographic Channel introduced “Doomsday Preppers,” a Tuesday-night reality series about people who are stockpiling, arming and otherwise preparing for some kind of apocalypse. Last week it was the Discovery Channel’s turn. Its new “Doomsday Bunkers,” on Wednesday nights, is about Deep Earth Bunker, a company that builds underground getaways for the types of people seen in “Doomsday Preppers.”
Watch either show for a short while and, unless you’re a prepper yourself, you might be moderately amused at the absurd excess on display and at what an easy target the prepper worldview is for ridicule. Watch a bit longer, though, and amusement may give way to annoyance at how offensively anti-life these shows are, full of contempt for humankind.
“Doomsday Preppers” introduces an array of end-of-civilization types who at first seem surprisingly varied. These preppers live all over the country, in rural areas, suburbs and cities. Each has a different reason for turning a perfectly adequate home into a canned-food warehouse or building an escape hideaway (or bug-out location, to use the prepper term) in the mountains. One expects the North and South Poles to swap places, one a global economic collapse, one “an electromagnetic pulse that will disable the transportation system of the United States.”
But the people on this show and the customers of Deep Earth Bunker are more alike than diverse. Who knows how representative these shows are of the prepper universe, but the people they feature are disproportionately white. They can’t speak for long without employing that cliché involving excrement and a fan. And whatever their religious beliefs might be, something “Preppers” doesn’t generally explore, most of them put their real faith in firearms.
“Preppers” and “Bunkers” are both full of footage of people firing or lovingly cradling their weaponry, which in many cases is frighteningly extensive. (You really don’t want the guy in last week’s “Preppers” living next door; in addition to a house full of ammunition, he has stockpiled 50 gallons of gasoline, an unsettling combination.) One notable exception was Kathy Harrison, a New England woman profiled on a recent “Preppers.”
“It’s easy to feel a little left out of the prepper community if you live in New England and if you’re not fairly right wing and conservative politically,” she said in the segment. “But I just don’t spend my time worrying about stockpiling guns and ammunition, because our security comes not from stockpiling weapons but from having a community that respects each other, supports each other, and we have each others’ backs.”
A noble sentiment. But the unmistakable impression left by these programs is that what these folks want most of all is not to protect their families — the standard explanation for why they’re doing what they’re doing — or even the dubious pleasure of being able to say to the rest of us, “See, I told you the world was going to end.” What they want is a license to open fire.
The number of bullets sprayed around in these shows, by adults and even their children, might give Rambo pause. Yet “Doomsday Preppers” and “Doomsday Bunkers” might still qualify as decent television if they were less credulous — if, for instance, they asked a few basic questions:
Won’t it be hard to find a plumber after civilization collapses? What will happen when that methane-harvesting septic system clogs?
Have the “Doomsday Bunker” diggers talked to the “Doomsday Prepper” people who think the Big Catastrophe will originate underground, via volcano or earthquake?
More seriously, what is the attraction of continuing to live in a world that forces people to cower in an underground box and spend all their time fending off those who want their freeze-dried apricots?
Even more seriously, what is the attraction of continuing to live in a world that will almost certainly not have television or the Internet, depriving doomsday types of the shows and Web sites that fuel their paranoia and sell products exploiting it?
“Doomsday Preppers” even offers the people it profiles advice on improving their preparations. (National Geographic, though, on a Facebook page, gives commenters a chance to mock the preppers with a photo caption contest. Under a picture of a man neck-deep in a hole in the ground, someone has written, “It looks like we’ll be alright as long as the end of the world doesn’t involve rain.”)
At their worst the shows don’t merely give the prepper universe a pass on difficult questions; they reinforce its ugliest undercurrents. The most recent “Doomsday Preppers” included a white family 40 miles from Atlanta that is worried about rioting caused by economic collapse. “Civil unrest will most likely ensue in the metropolitan areas and then spread out to the suburbs,” the patriarch says.
His defenses include a generous supply of guns and a couple of German shepherds. An expert with a trained attack dog comes by to demonstrate what a properly schooled dog can do. He has a man dress up in protective gear and act menacing, then turns the dog loose. The fake intruder is black, the only black face in the hourlong program.
A free country, of course, includes the freedom to be a prepper. From a television perspective the real question is: What are these shows, so disdainful of life and human potential, doing on these outlets?
The Discovery Channel has on its résumé some of the most beautiful, life-affirming documentaries ever broadcast, among them “Life” (2010) and “Planet Earth” (2007), with another, “Frozen Planet,” coming up this weekend. And National Geographic plasters this motto on most everything, including the television channel’s Web site: “Inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.”
Hmm. Apparently “inspiring people to prepare a personal fortress and pray for cataclysm so they can start blasting away at their neighbors” was deemed not to have quite the same ring to it.