In September, Syfy debuted two new apocalyptic dramas, Aftermath, which shows the end of the world in progress, and Van Helsing, which shows the world in the, well, aftermath. Last week, they added Incorporated to their dystopian line-up, and the week before that Netflix gave us Brazil’s compelling, disconcerting entry into the field, 3%. These latest offerings join other civilization-shattering shows The Walking Dead (and its prequel), Z Nation, The Last Man on Earth, The Last Ship (recently renewed for Season 4), 12 Monkeys, Colony, The 100, The Strain, The Leftovers and — in some ways — Zoo as shows currently airing that deal with TEOTWAWKI. Not to mention Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the many ways in which the world is constantly in peril there.
Whither all this doom and gloom? Of course, apocalyptic viewing, both pre- and post-, is hardly new for television. Recently, we’ve had Revolution and Falling Skies and Containment; back in the 2000s, we had Jericho and Survivors and, for a spacey change of pace, Andromeda; in the 90s it was Jeremiah and Dark Angel and Space: Above and Beyond. Buffy saved the world a lot. Before (and after) her, so did The Doctor.
What is it about the end of everything that we find so compelling? Why did the ancient Norse concoct an elaborate scenario in which a wolf was involved?; why did the tripped-out author of The Book of Revelation include a dragon?; and why are we so hung up on pandemics?
Is it as simple as assuring us that life could assuredly be so much worse? Is that why, in these uncertain times, we have so very many worst case scenarios playing out on our screens? Or is it merely the Robinson Crusoe castaway fantasy, being a lone survivor making it on our own, relying on our wits because technology, wealth, the law and all the other crutches with which we stand so tall abruptly fail us?
I’ll not deny, I have put in far more time than I would like to admit playing out the various apocalyptic scenarios in my head, and figuring out exactly how I would fare in each lawless, ravaged land…
Alien Invasion: I live in a country with super-strict gun laws. This is great, as we can go to school/church/the mall, etc. with impunity, but when aliens of ill-intent invade, it means there isn’t much of a civilian resistance — not in the cities, at least. The trade off is totally worth it.
Asteroid Impact: I stay put and accept the inevitable. There is no way I am getting caught up in the seething horde trying to flee to some mythical safe distance. I hate traffic jams! But I will finish reading Les Misérables before it hits, dammit.
Dragons: I am killed by dragons.
EMP: Pretty much all of my money is tied up in POP Vinyls, so I am not too affected by the crash of the world banking systems. But the loss of my virtual Pokedex sends me over the edge.
Nuclear War: I survive the radioactive fallout because my body is at least 75% artificial preservative at all times. I make my living as a travelling bard, re-enacting episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from memory.
Pandemic: I survive the first wave, and we all think it’s safe. But then the virus mutates, I accidentally switch wineglasses with an infected friend, and die just as I geniusly deduce a vaccine. (“Geniusly” is now a word, you guys.) I have no medical training.
Rapture: I can’t believe I was wrong!
Vampires: I am killed by vampires.
Zombies: I am one of the first to turn, when I reach out to a slavering stranger and ask helpfully: “Are you oka–AAAAAAAGH!” All of my friends have been put on notice to come find me and put me down before I do someone a mischief.
Watching, albeit fictional, people fare better than I know I ever could in these extreme circumstances can be a very humbling experience. Conversely, watching people fall apart and do very, very stupid things (hey there, Rick Grimes, no, not talking about you, why would you think so?) can be pretty cheering, for all that the subject matter is often grim as hell.
In the end (forgive the pun), I think the allure of apocalyptic television — and movies, and books, and comics; let’s not forget that a bunch of these shows are adaptations — is a little bit voyeurism, a little bit wish-fulfillment and a little bit schadenfreude.
But mostly, its just reminds us that we don’t have it so bad. Not those of us granted the luxury of watching the end of our world on TV, anyway.