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.
…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:
I just don’t spend my time worrying about storing 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 other’s back.
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.