Why Reality TV is Actually Post-Apocalyptic


I know - that headline sounds like a classic TV critic complaint. Most of us love to hate reality TV, and try to convince its fans that it’s just as fake as any scripted series. And at first glance, the post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows we love couldn’t seem more different from a reality show. One deals with humanity clinging to survival in the aftermath of a catastrophe, and the other deals with “real” people competing in silly contests for prize money (and scheming against their competition).

But take a closer look. Reality TV and the post-apocalyptic genre actually make the same promises to viewers. Reality shows suggest that anyone at home could be cast on the show, and if they’re smart (or popular) enough, they can win the game. Post-apocalyptic fare, whether it’s a disaster flick or a zombie series, demonstrates that the smart people (usually socially disadvantaged characters) are the ones who survive to repopulate the Earth. What’s interesting is that while both scenarios are unlikely, they seem attainable to viewers, and that’s how they draw people in.

For the sake of an example, let’s compare Extreme Makeover: Home Edition to NBC’s Revolution. The former is about a team that finds struggling families and builds new houses for them, while the latter follows what happens to civilization when electricity suddenly stops working. On the surface, the two programs don’t have much in common. But they both accomplish the same thing: they focus on people who have fallen on hard times, only to have a powerful force sweep in and reboot their lives, giving them a chance to start over.

'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition' sweeps in each episode to reverse a family's fortunes

This goes beyond the fundamental “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances” model - beyond simple escapism - because both scenarios seem (bizarrely) more plausible than your typical adventure. On Makeover, a family facing a daunting challenge, like raising ten kids or dealing with serious illness, inspires their community to even the odds (with the help of a network budget).  On Revolution, a family clings together while their corrupt society is destroyed and a new one is born. The stories on both shows may be sweeping and emotional, but above all, there’s a sense they might actually happen to you.

Consider the two space rocks we crossed paths with yesterday – the meteor that exploded in Russia and the asteroid flyby. They reminded everyone that Earth is kind of vulnerable, and that we might not be so lucky next time. If a big rock hit us, and civilization fell apart, who would live to help rebuild? TV and movies tell us that usually the good guys do, especially if the “evil” society that was repressing the good guys fell apart during the disaster.

I recently helped produce a short video profile of a doomsday prepper. You know: the catastrophe-obsessed people who stock up on food and weapons, and plan extensively for the end of world. The woman we focused on wasn’t an extremist, like the kind we see on the National Geographic Channel series, but she said something interesting as we packed up our video gear at the end of the shoot.

She wanted to audition for The Amazing Race, a reality show that claims to reward contestants who are super-prepared; people like doomsday preppers, who know what to pack and how to get by on long journeys through unfamiliar environments.

'Survivor' appears to pluck people from obscurity and allow them to shine

Here’s a woman with limited resources, raising two kids with her husband. The post-apocalyptic genre had inspired her to prepare for a solar flare: to store electronics in a Faraday cage and stock up on food and supplies. And in the event that the end of days didn’t come, she wondered if a reality show could be a backup. She was a perfect example of the kind of person that reality shows and post-apocalyptic entertainment cater to. But the question remains: does the demographic see themselves as the heroes, or are they just looking to be rescued?

It comes down to a built-in feeling of wish fulfillment. Average people struggling to pay the bills or recover after a tragedy can’t be faulted for looking towards an “act of God” to raise them out of their current predicament. So they audition for Survivor, or plan out how they’d outlast a zombie outbreak. Reality TV and post-apocalyptic programming both offer a leveling of the playing field; a chance to be a star, to be plucked from obscurity and allowed to shine.

It’s not a failing of either type of programming that they inspire these fantasies. It’s simply a curious link between two seemingly separate kinds of entertainment. It targets an unconscious desire to have a fair shot, whether it comes from winning X Factor or scratching out a life in the nuclear wasteland. That being said, I think I’d prefer the post-apocalypse to being a housemate on Big Brother.


What do you think about the connection between reality shows and the post-apocalyptic genre? Are they as similar as it seems, or do they just share certain traits? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this article, check out some of my posts here:


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