1/20/2011

Bad Television: The Colony Season 2


Season two of Discovery Channel's popular reality TV show The Colony recently concluded on local cable. As with many reality TV programs, the ending left me slightly disappointed with the outcome. Most shows fail to provide the hoped for cathartic moment, and The Colony in particular stretches credulity more than most. Like past serials such as 1900 House or Frontier House, the participants are asked to live within a simulated environment. Unlike them, the simulation itself is more fanciful than believable. The main problem is the manufactured storyline being superimposed on top of the basic premise.

In the series, the "colonists" attempt to survive within a cordoned-off area designed to recreate a post-apocalyptic urban environment. In both seasons, they scavenge for food and water while working on increasingly elaborate builds to shore up power and improve security. But because their immediate area is too small to begin with and resources within it too scarce, they're inevitably forced to "exit" the colony, at which point the series ends. This scenario sounds counterintuitive. Why are the colonists more concerned with producing electricity for power tools over procuring food and clean water? If civilization really collapsed, shouldn't the survivors take to the road sooner rather than become trapped in an inhospitable city? But since that's a tall order to simulate, what happens is the polar opposite: the colonists are gradually reduced to skin and bones while working overtime on generators and what not, unable to leave until the very last episode. That no one from either season attempts to do something that would be long-term sustainable, such as farming or raising livestock, spells out the futility of this "experiment".

Another way in which the format trumps realism is the colonists themselves. Like most reality TV contestants, they're a motley crew of total strangers forced to cohabit with one another. This results in the usual reality TV hijinks. Viewers have complained that the casting in season one was biased towards the more technologically proficient. But the show also ignored something the historically-based shows got right - that settlements tend to be established by people who already know each other. Otherwise it's just another penal colony.

As if the reasons for not being able to leave sooner weren't silly enough, the colonists have to contend with Hollywood-style complications. In both seasons, the colonists were harassed by paid actors playing the role of "marauders". Rather inexplicably, the marauders possessed greater numbers, were better fed, and better armed. They're villains right out of Lost or Mad Max. Yet they can never completely overwhelm the colonists since that would prematurely end the show. The colonists aren't allowed to join up with the marauders. So they're constantly subject to annoying raids. After all, the cast is never meant to be put in real danger. In both seasons, the series makes it look as if the colonists were eventually driven out by the marauders rather than admitting to the more mundane meta explanation that the allotted time for filming (not to mention the local supply of food and raw materials) had simply run out. So the presence of the marauders only betrays the contrived nature of the whole show. I don't remember the participants of Frontier House having to pretend they were under assault from armed bandits.

Despite these quibbles, season one was actually decent nerd entertainment, if only because the colonists were able to come up with so many nifty contraptions. The producers did stack the deck by not only casting engineers and mechanics, but by also situating them within a spacious warehouse. The producers rightfully fixated on the builds, given that this is the kind of infotainment the Discovery Channel excels at. Season two's colonists are younger and prettier, but not as personally compelling, well-equipped, or well-protected from outside interference. It's as if the producers responded to criticisms of season one by going out of their way to torture season two's cast. During the raids, at least two colonists are pepper sprayed, and one is even kidnapped for ransom. They're incompetent at procuring food. In fact, they're so piss-poor at hunting, gathering, and defending themselves that another colonist is introduced later in series, and his survival training pretty much saves them from dying from malnutrition (or at least that's what's being implied). If the show was really concerned about demonstrating proper survival techniques, it should have have included him from the beginning.

The producers seem to have also listened to criticisms about the ambiguous nature of season one's catastrophe. In season two it's defined as a global viral pandemic. Unfortunately the extra details have a way of making the season's story arc even more convoluted. For example, the starting premise is that the colonists were carefully quarantined by the Viral Outbreak Protection Agency (VOPA) to ensure their health, only to be dumped onto an insecure location where they're vulnerable to attacks from marauders and the infected alike. VOPA's other baffling actions are just another excuse to mess with the cast's emotional well-being. At one point they deliberately botch a food drop, yet safely deliver pre-recorded messages from the colonist's real-word families. But the colonists themselves engage in their fair share of illogical behavior in order to stick to the storyline. When some of them are scouting an area for a potential new settlement, they are attacked by one of the infected. Rather than counting it out as too dangerous to inhabit, the group decides it's an ideal location. On the final day of filming, the colonists stage a pointless counter-raid on the marauders, probably done just so the series could have a climactic action scene. Are the producers trying to make them look stupid?

The second season of The Colony isn't all bad. The builds still display considerable resourcefulness and practical knowledge. But the insistence that this is a serious post-apocalyptic experiment is starting to wear thin. And it doesn't help that this season's cast behaved like a bunch of second bananas in search for a lead actor to fall behind. Their tribulations are no longer enjoyable to watch the second time around. If The Colony returns for a third season, bring back the nerds.