That didn’t take long. The Discovery Channel premiered its first episode of Doomsday Bunkers last week (fun fact: Both shows had the word ‘bullets’ in the name of their premieres). I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a lower form of life on this planet than the opportunistic parasite network producer. For that reason I imagine it won’t be long till we get even more granular spin offs in this new doomsday genre: Roadkill Kitchen, Real Housewives of Bartertown, how about MTVCribs: Bunkerz? Needless to say, Doomsday Bunkers has an arguably more practical format with less schlock, but like Preppers, spends more time sensationalizing and less informing. Shocker!
I’ve got to acknowledge that this week’s Preppers episode was probably the best of the bunch, particularly Atlanta’s Mike Mester, who seems to be one of the most intelligent and reasonable folks presented so far on the show. The Mester family seems to have a great balance of prep skills and retention of humanity. Mester doesn’t seem to attract eye-rolling from his family by engaging with hilarious overcommitment like the deer hide-clad stick sharpener Michael Douglas from Episode 4, nor does he foolishly put his loved ones in danger like Tim Ralston and his stubby thumb. Doing little things like having plans for each family member, adding loyal guard dogs, training his family to use firearms at a legit firing range and reuse/recycle of paper goods to create long burning briquettes for heat was pretty cool. The family seems on board with his plans and I thought it was commendable for the ‘experts’ to recommend that he engage his neighbors and community – this is exactly the kind of guy I would love to have living next door, and thats the tip of the iceberg to make a prepared community, which is leaps and bounds more beneficial than a prepared household. Above all, Mike just doesn’t seem to have the same slightly wacko disposition as the others and he commanded my attention and respect, from one human being to another.
Last weeks post created some conversation on Reddit, with some who claimed that it was unfair to label preppers as crazy; the show is produced and edited to exaggerate these eccentric personalities to make the show entertaining. Obvious point is obvious, but I want to reiterate my point: it should be more important to be informative than entertaining. Nothing much is hanging in the balance when we watch Hoarders or Ace of Cakes – the repercussions of false information in the survivalist context is potentially deadly. That being said, It was pretty interesting to go from Mike Mester to Preston White, who is afraid of the bogeyman prospects of Fukushima fallout in America. The former seemed lucid and practical while the latter seemed to be have a closet full of tinfoil hats. So, really — is there a casting director getting fired for allowing average dad Mike Mester into this menagerie of maniacs or is it more likely that theres a predisposition for these characters to be a little crazy, or maybe just more willing to let producers lead them into it?
In the weeks since the show aired, theres been more than a few interviews with show characters who have expressed frustration in the way they were portrayed on the show. Definitely worth checking around for post-airing interviews across the board – one of the most common gripes was producers encouraging preppers to choose ONE EVENT that they were preparing for. I don’t get it, it’s apparently boring for anyone to have a well rounded, prepare-for-the-worst approach to their planning, and instead we’re treated to far too many crackpot doomsday scenarios. Seriously, who at NatGeo has a hard-on for cataclysmic polar shifts? Every episode, there seems to be a wealth of improbable scenarios with absolutely no basis in science or historical precedent.
The other highlights from episode 5 for me was tinfoil hat Preston White’s impressive seed bank (11,000 in reserve!) and portable quick-assemble tent shelter (the image of him playfully spinning around inside the tent like Laura Ingalls, pitching the audience: “Safe for your Family!” will be lulz-worthy for a long, long time). The HHO Generator that a friend brings by was also pretty neat, although the cosmetic rope lights gave it about as much appeal as a neon-pimped 98′ Civic – Flux Capacitor it ain’t. Riley Cook is a metalworker who fabricates bunkers – but the watertight pull cart beast he made was even more impressive to me – crafted from aluminum and weighing a paltry 100lbs, he can actually haul 9 times his body weight by himself and the thing even floats and can act as a mini barge and cross water if necessary. Practical awesomeness.
Finally, we managed to find out who the ‘experts’ were on this show, and i’m not disappointed at all. You can check out their Youtube channels here and here, which are chock full of prep information. In one self interview, Scott Hunt (Engineer775) even laments NatGeo’s decision to name the show Doomsday Preppers, regretting they couldn’t name the show ‘American Preppers’ or something that might engender more regard and respect than shock value. Unfortunately, we also discovered that the Expert Analysis that they provide is done almost as an afterthought – they only work with what the producers give them and never actually meet the characters on location. Now I don’t blame the experts, if I were as serious and established as they were, I’d not trade airtight OpSec for 15 minutes of fame – but I’d still rather see NatGeo find a bullpen of experts that could be far more involved in the shows production and execution.
All in all, the latest episode was the tightest so far, so I’m curious to see what they have for the remaining 4 episodes and how they approach next season. The addition of Doomsday Bunkers will at least provide some contrast and motivate better production. We seem to be finding a fair amount of likeminded people who have been putting out similar criticisms: the content is great, we’re all interested, now its time to take responsibility and recognize that prepping as a movement has more value in its information than its entertainment value.
After watching the first five episodes of the new ‘reality’ series Doomsday Preppers, I still can’t quite determine what the National Geographic Channel thinks the entertainment value is. The casting choices focus on survivalist stereotypes. But there’s also that extra reality TV ingredient: selecting the most ‘out there’ and socially awkward people to provide for some good ol’ fashioned humiliation-tainment. I’m pretty sure that NatGeo isn’t producing this show — at least this first season — with a straight face.
If you’re tuned in to the apocalypse, there’s plenty to learn from and empathize with on Doomsday Preppers. But if you’re an average viewer/denialist/sheep then chances are you’re watching the show in the same vain as A&E’s Hoarders or TLC’s My Strange Addiction. Dropping in on GetGlue discussions, for instance, demonstrates the majority opinion on the prepper community: these people are fucking nuts.
No doubt, the average prepper provokes the audience with bouts of exaggerated paranoia and obsessive compulsive behavior like the hoarding of guns, ammo and supplies, so it is hard to fault the average viewer for seeing psychosis instead of practical preparation. On the other hand, it does seem unfortunate that the show format and characters presented produce more chuckles and “Are you kidding me?” lamentation than attentive regard. In this day and age, we could really use some mainstream programming that educates through the promotion of practical preparation and sustainable living. NatGeo is definitely going down the right street with Doomsday Preppers. They’re just driving on the wrong side in the wrong direction.
End Times Experts? Please.
I always thought that reality TV producers cling too tightly to the notion that every series should revolve around competition. There must always be winners and losers, doesn’t matter if you’re cooking, losing weight, designing clothes, baking cakes or crab fishing, theres an assumption that viewers will only endear themselves to the characters if they’re competing to win. Doomsday Preppers clumsily inserts this element through rating each person via ‘preparedness review’ by ‘practical prepper experts’ at the end of each segment. It’s not so much the hilariously cheesy 0-100 scale meter graphics as it is the seemingly arbitrary criteria and the fact that by episode 5, we still haven’t been introduced to the ‘experts’ at all.
Who are these experts, and more importantly, what makes them experts? The show utilizes a disembodied narrator but strikes me as the type of show that could really benefit from a host or hosting panel, personalities that could help endear the viewers to the subjects. Imagine an A-Team of survivalist professors leading this show: Bear Gryllis ex-military survivalist types, Mythbusters-style DIY engineering mechanics, homesteaders, community agriculturists, peace corps doctors and anthropologists. Giving me the faces, names, degrees and resumes of these true ‘experts’ would instantly provide validity and real-world relevance for the ratings and criticisms. Right now the pass/fail ratings are an afterthought and the advice is shallow, addressing superficial concerns while ignoring elephant-in-the-room scale problems.
Take Tim Ralston in Episode 3, who fears an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Aside from accidentally blowing his thumb off, gets reprimanded for not having his bugout uber-shelter built yet, but is left off the hook for evacuating in his Jeep, which would be rendered useless in an EMP attack. How about Jason Charles, NYFD, who fears a Yellowstone Supervolcano eruption and gets a poor rating for not having more supply caches, but doesn’t get called out for the cognitive dissonance of insisting on living in New York City, let alone any metropolitan area?
This routine suppression of ‘big picture questions’ confounds me — this is the really interesting stuff behind collapse and post-collapse strategies, and the producers consistently decide not to rain on the preppers’ parades, preferring to play nice and look the other way. This sophomoric approach cheapens the quality of the information presented. Compound this with the lack of debate and attention to real problems and you’ve no choice to conclude that the real star of this show isn’t the learning experience, its the eccentric behavior of its paranoid misanthropes.
Only the Crazy Survive
Lets talk about those paranoid misanthropes for a second. The crew here at News for End Times stands well outside the typical demographic presented so far. Most of the preppers featured are older and seem to have financial independence. As corporate retirees living on fat pensions or disability, they seem to have enough disposable income to commit tens of thousands of dollars to supplies, and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in remote real estate. Most of them seem to be free of the trappings of a 9 to 5; Megan Hurwitt claims to work out 4 hours a day, 6 days a week, Kathy Harrison cans food for 6-8 hours a day. Theres a level of commitment and scale here that the average American just can’t afford in time or money. The majority of them hail from midwest states and are religious, social conservatives (I’m positive there’s hours of birther-esque drivel cut from Pat Brabbles’ segment in Episode 3).
But maybe the most glaring difference between the majority of these people and myself is an inherent fear of everyone else on the planet. Step one for most of them is to get in a vehicle and travel far far away from the rest of the population, who they insist is bent on raping and pillaging from the first day of post collapse. Interestingly, its not the disaster event, but this mistrustful mindset that drives most of the aforementioned paranoia – and the behavioral result is epitomized in the title of Episode 1: “Bullets, Lots and Lots of Bullets.”
The arsenals held by preppers like Paul Range, Tim Ralston, Pat Brabble and Martin Colvill are borderline comical. They stock enough guns and ammo to kit up a decently sized militia. It’s not practical weaponry either — tricked-out semi-auto handguns and assault rifles with rail systems. Or consider the case of Jason Charles, who in lieu of being able to own firearms in NYC, opts for a dizzying array of knives and swords that look like they were all bought at DragonCon. This trade of practicality for spectacle and “wow” factor leaves you with the impression that they’d be more comfortable LARPing than they would ever be in a post-collapse scenario. I’m not going to deny that I’ve fantasized about donning black leather and a sawed off double barrel whilst cruising the wasteland in a V8, but I feel like I would do a pretty good job separating reality from fantasy when budgeting for what weaponry I need vs. what looks awesome on my hip. To me, It comes off as ‘playtime’, you can see their eyes light up at the prospect of maybe getting to play cowboys and Indians.
Reality vs. Reality TV
The show features an endless list of bad craziness that makes me hope I never run across these people post-collapse. Only two preppers have really impressed me so far: Kathy Harrison and Jules Dervaes (his own review of the Doomsday Preppers visit is worth reading). Why am I impressed? Well because instead of preparing for the end of the world to flip a switch and go into bugout mode, they’ve opted to make simple changes to their lifestyles in anticipation, and also live well while they do it. Theres a recognition with them that civilization needs to change, end of the world or not. They put some distance between themselves and the least sustainable aspects of modern life, they’ve embraced DIY and localism and community, they’ve simply worked hard to keep things in perspective and approach day to day life with some measure of modesty in terms of where we as humans stand in our environment. They seem to draw great satisfaction in the present from living this way, where many of the other preppers seem anxious and afraid, sitting around waiting for the day they have to start shooting. No doubt, the experts dropped the hammer on them for naively not stockpiling guns and ammo or trusting their neighbors – but Kathy’s response to the criticism is enlightening:
Granted, Kathy lives in a small pastoral New England town. Survival certainly wouldn’t be as easy for Jason Charles living in NYC due to the inevitable stresses that come with unsustainably dense population zones. However, her view on strong communities is the key to the kingdom. Because what Doomsday Preppers does not address — ever — is what these people plan on doing after the shit hits the fan. What does Tim Ralston and his family plan on doing once they descend into their buried cargo container bunker? Will Martin Colvill drive his tractor trailer indefinitely across the wasteland? Will Donna Nash sit in a plastic bubble forever, waiting for the bird flu to dissipate? Consider the existential conflict of living in Cold War-era nuke shelters, where a family would entomb themselves for weeks or possibly months or years on end waiting for the radiation to clear, eating freeze-dried food and shitting into chemical toilets three feet from where they sleep. Yet you can still travel around the southeast and find countless bomb shelters from the 50′s and 60′s — thousands upon thousands bought into the notion that life in a steel coffin was better than no life at all. Is that a life? No. It’s a half-life.
So what to do? What makes the most sense to me is right in line with Kathy Harrison’s philosophy. Humans are communal by nature — we’ve never advanced our species on this planet as solitary individuals. Every wonder and joy we’ve experienced has come from humans working and sharing experiences together, and the end times are no different. It really comes down to creating, or failing that, joining communities that you want to be part of — fostering relationships and becoming neighbors and families that share a mutual respect and love. If the fallout from an end times scenario is a paradigm shift to localized, neo-agrarian communities that exist on a smaller, sustainable scale but retain all the wonderful technology, communications and medicine of the 21st century, I’d actually just rather skip ahead now and leave all this terrible bullshit behind, wouldn’t you?
If you can read between the lines though, and try to ignore that the show is psycho-voyeurism masquerading as edu-tainment, there are redeeming qualities. It is a good thing that a shows like Dommsday Preppers are on television bringing an awareness to the subject and getting people thinking. As the producers run out of the more, um, vibrant individuals, they may turn to the more practical, average people — and it might wind up being more interesting as a result. Like most reality TV, If it enjoys even moderate success it will no doubt spawn copies on Discovery and TLC and who knows where else. Each network will put its own spin on it, and there’s plenty of room for that. One of them may actually get it right… just don’t hold your breath.
Check back each week for my episodic review/analysis of Doomsday Preppers. Now that I’ve got all that off my chest, I promise next time I’ll be more concise.