The National Geographic channel's reality show Doomsday Castle is about a family who has built a fortress in the Southern wild as a safe house in the event of eschaton. Paterfamilias Brent says, as paraphrased in a story in the New York Daily News, that when the end comes, "It will be every family for itself, and [Brent] likes the chances of a family that has a good supply of food and water, plus the means to obtain and produce more." The show is a spinoff of NatGeo's top-rated program, Doomsday Preppers — "preppers" being survivalists, those who stockpile weapons and food and prepare for — one might say hope for — the worst.
There are extremists in society, as everyone with an internet connection knows. Doomsday shows popularize and, to some extent, legitimize this fringe element. After all, it's one more perspective among a multitude — as many as there are channels on your cable or satellite feed. In American TV democracy, a prepper is no better or worse than a crab fisherman, cupcake radical, or beauty pageanteer, so long as he or she makes for good TV.
The Doomsday duo highlights our society's reptilian subconscious. We can be an aggressively fearful species, accumulating more guns packing greater firepower, all on the premise of "what if?" The problem is that it's boring to have guns and never get to use them, even canned food eventually goes bad, and an unnecessary underground bunker just makes you look like a fool and an asshole.
Thus is contextualized AMC's The Walking Dead, the number-one scripted hour on TV — an unprecedented feat given that it airs on basic cable. Set in the South, about a zombie plague and the living handful who endure it, The Walking Dead is inconsistent but provides serious gory fun, a midnight meat train to Georgia. There's always at least one moment per episode where I laugh, usually involving a toothy zombie and an exploded special-effects bladder of red goo.
Pop culture both emulates and influences us — though there are deniers who see it as a one-way relationship — because it's a conversation between creator and viewer. One reading of The Walking Dead is that it is a fantasy in which the federal government is destroyed, power is optimized on a micro-local level, the individual is supreme, "be prepared" armament-gathering is brilliant forward-thinking, and standing one's ground is necessary and right. It's kill or be killed: prepper wish-fulfillment where they are the heroes.
Though only two episodes in, Season 4 of The Walking Dead appears to offer a mild critique of this perspective. Troublingly, The Walking Dead has always justified a fear of "the Other" — crucially, zombies look like humans but are still monsters it's morally okay to kill. Under new producer Scott Gimple, a course correction is under way: Amazingly, it seems to be saying that there is, in fact, a wrong way to watch the show. In the first episode of the new season, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) is discomfited when zombies are slaughtered and a pair of children discuss the difference between the undead and the alive: "They had names when they were alive. They're dead now," one kid says. The other replies, "No, they're not. They're just different."
We survived Y2K, 2012, and other man-made foretellings of the last days, but the monsters never came, so we've had to create some new ones. Our end-times fetishism continues unabated. Maybe The Walking Dead will become about something we don't want to happen.
The Walking Dead
Sundays, 8 p.m.
Season 3 premiers Tuesday, October 29th, 8 p.m.
Season 1 available on iTunes and Amazon Instant