10/09/2012

Bad Television: Doomsday Preppers



Welcoming The Apocalypse


I've been following National Geographic's new TV series Doomsday Preppers, in which each episode is divided into 15 minute segments profiling a different prepper household. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure. I know next to nothing about this subculture, but I'm going to assume that the people the series highlights are at the far end of the prepper spectrum. It's one thing to prepare for the occasional natural disaster, home invasion, or extended period of unemployment. But as the title states, these people are waiting for the end of the world.

And for almost everyone of them, it's a question of when, not if, the world will end. Every segment begins with the subjects stating the particular scenario they're prepping for, which naturally comes across as myopic. The likelihood of the various scenarios range from "possible but unlikely" to near-impossible to "hard to be sure without more data" to "you're paranoid and need help". But the thing about obsessing about the apocalypse is that you might end up looking forward to it. Or at least looking forward to thriving from it. There's more than a hint of glee in many of the interviewees as they envision themselves and their (mainly nuclear) families safely tucked away while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket. And for some of them, this may be more than a figure of speech. While the series remains coy about discussing their political views and religious beliefs, it's easy enough to infer a subtext. Most of the preppers are Caucasians who think that social collapse is inevitable, whatever their preferred catalyst: EMP pulse, thermonuclear war, supervolcano, global pandemic, hyperinflation. It all leads to the same thing, and they want to be counted among the chosen few, not just another benighted "victim". Not surprisingly for this "us vs. them" mode of thinking, a lot of preppers are armed to the teeth and trained in hand-to-hand combat. It's almost like they're chomping at the bit for the day when they can unload hot lead on someone for merely stepping on their lawn. The machismo can mask an irrational dread for an America that has lost its way but which could be fixed in the coming purge.* One married couple practices navigating their home in the dark and accessing their hidden caches of firearms like some TV SWAT team. The wife is so proud of her stockpiles of gourmet food that she boasts she'll be the only one who'll be needing to shed a few pounds in the post-Apocalyptic world. Another man accidentally blows off his thumb with his gun during a training exercise with his two boys in the desert. Good thing the camera crew was there that day, or he'd still be missing his entire digit. Another household wants to turn their two docile pet German Shepherds into attack dogs. They watch a demonstration of a real attack dog let loose on a simulated attacker, who's unfortunately cast as African American.**

The show does hint that the prepper community might be a bit more varied than the usual parade of white male, rugged individualist, anti-government, antisocial, trigger-happy paramilitary types.** One suburban housewife seems to have taken her neat-freak tendencies up a notch as she gets set for a global pandemic. She cajoles her unwilling family into routine emergency drills and distributes medical kits to her neighbors. On one such housecall, She terrifies an elderly couple who've probably never even heard of a pandemic. Unlike most of the preppers on the show, she plans to stay where she is to help her community rather than evacuate to a more secure location.

In another segment, a New England resident optimistically foresees the collapse of society leading to a return to a more agrarian way of life. She eschews violence in favor of communitarianism. "…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 like-minded neighbor of hers concurs, stating that if anyone actually threatens him, he will feed them and charm them, and if necessary, poison them. Uh, right. Good luck with that.****

Ignoring the exultant doomsaying, there's a lot of individual ingenuity at work. Everything from the proper stockpiling of food, alternative fuels and modes of transportation, building a secure and comfortable bunker, proper quarantine protocols, protection from radiation, to the proper way to grow crops and raise animals. Before watching the show, it never occurred to me that seeds could come in handy as a useful barter item. At the end of each segment, the show's off-camera "experts" assess the prepper's achievements and point out where there is room for improvement. I'm not qualified to judge the practicality of any of these efforts, but I get the impression that they're being measured against some ultimate version of the prepper's chosen doomsday scenario. These experts are always quick to point out when the interviewee has less than two years worth of food and water, or no proper "bug out" plan. This sage advice is ultimately undermined when the program's voice-over narrator admits to the audience (but not to the preppers' faces) of the extremely low probability of the envisioned events ever happening.*****

Like a lot of shows of this type (e.g. The Colony) Doomsday Preppers is basically there to enable their subjects' end-of-the-world fantasies. It's an addictive but exploitative format. And for all I know, partially staged to enhance its entertainment value. What I can say is that the series portrays the preppers having given up on society to the point where most are willing to hole up in an underground bunker for years if necessary. I can't help but suspect that if the collapse of civilization were to actually take place, most of them would eventually be driven batty or worse by their self-imposed isolation. Assuming that it's technically feasible, I'd rather take my chance with these guys.

And what's the point in revealing to the TV audience that they might even possess hidden supplies of food and weapons?
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* Update 2012/12/12 - It's telling of their collective viewpoint that while many of the preppers believed in some form of socio-economic collapse preceded by government failure, almost no one was worried about realistic climate change scenarios.

** Update 2012/12/05 - The only African American prepper (or nonwhite prepper) shown so far is a New York City fireman, whose fear of a possible eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano may, or may not be, related to the traumatic experiences of 9/11.

*** Update 2012/10/23 -  The creepiest example yet is the H├ęctor Elizondo lookalike who's trained his personal commando-style squad made up of impressionable teenagers. Does he recruit them from orphanages, or are they supposed to abandon their respective families when the time comes?

**** Update 2012/10/22 - In a recent episode, one woman is shown prepping not so much for the end of civilization, but for the day the Federal Government declares martial law. This is a typical fantasy of the far-right. But unlike those who head for the hills, she preps on the side while living like a normal single person in an urban setting, all the while studying towards a business degree. Judging from the facial expressions of the members of her study group when she first reveals, and then attempts to recruit into her efforts, they were largely unaware of the true extent of her prepping.

And there's the married hippie couple who've converted an abandoned intercontinental ballistic missile silo into the most spacious and coziest (not to mention nuclear strike impregnable) home, complete with a jacuzzi. Meanwhile, a real estate developer is turning his silo into underground luxury condos, to be sold to preppers who want to live out the apocalypse in style.

***** Update 2012/12/05 - To be honest, a lot of Nat Geo's programming likes to employ this cheap shot in order to play it both ways. First they titillate you, then they chastise you for buying into the message they just used on you.