Doomsday Preppers, a series on the National Geographic channel, is part of a cloud of meaningless cable drivel that envelopes our national psyche like the smog that hangs over Los Angeles. In many ways Doomsday Preppers is indistinguishable from countless other low rent reality TV shows. Does anyone really sit down and watch this endless parade of house flippers, dance moms and custom motorcycle enthusiasts? Or is it all a kind of background, tranquilizing, electronic wallpaper?
I bring up Doomsday Preppers because many of its subjects are engaged in precisely the types of activities we write about on this blog and in our books: growing food, keeping livestock, building solar ovens, preserving food etc. And I finally got a chance to see the first episode and a few segments from later shows.
Of the three “compounds” profiled in the first episode, the most interesting was the family of Dennis McClung in Mesa, Arizona and the Kobler and Hunt families, who share a rural homestead. McClung has built an amazing tilapia farm in an old swimming pool in their backyard. They also have chickens and goats and have integrated the livestock into the greenhouse/tilapia project. It would have been interesting to see how the system McClung created works as a whole. But the producers were more interested in filming the family putting on gas masks and making duck weed smoothies. The Kobler and Hunt families operate what seems like a pretty normal rural homestead. What is unusual is their social arrangement: two families living together. It would have been interesting to explore that relationship. Instead the producers gave us endless scenes of the family shooting AR-15s.
Memo to the National Geographic folks: the internet has been bringing educational video content into living rooms for many years now, showing us how to actually grow tilapia, keep goats, etc. McClung, in fact, has his own website, gardenpool.org, which shows all the things I wanted to see on the TV show. Doomsday Preppers, on the other hand, has no redeeming educational content.
Living in Los Angeles, I know many people who work on reality TV shows. They have told me that, essentially, everything is staged and most details are simply made up. In Doomsday Preppers, the participants were forced to say that they were preparing for specific scenarios such as coronal mass ejections, rapid deflation or other variations on the zombie apocalypse. Producer Alan Madison puts words in his subjects mouths and commits the greatest sin of documentary film making, holding his subjects up for ridicule. In a comment on a review of Doomsday Preppers, McClung says,
I was the first person on the show. My family was edited out of context and coached to appear as if we believe in an imminent doomsday. We don’t. I am highly disappointed in [producer, director] Alan Madison and Sharp Entertainment for producing a B.S. “reality” show and tarnishing the Nat Geo name.
Film maker Werner Herzog often plays loose with the details of his documentaries. He calls the practice the “ecstatic truth.” He deploys the ecstatic truth when he thinks he needs to tell a story in a more compelling way than the actual facts of the situation allow. As a journalist, Mark Twain was also a fan of the ecstatic truth.
|McClung’s swimming pool aquaponics setup.|
Doomsday Preppers is a kind of unecstatic truth. It bends the facts, exploits its subjects and tells an uninteresting story. Doomsday Preppers delivers the unconscious message of its cynical producer, that you are crazy if you don’t just “act normal”, consume and shop. It holds its subjects up for ridicule because they are self-actuated people and, hence, “different”. The people profiled (victimized would be a better word) on Doomsday Preppers are actually getting up off the couch and doing something: growing food, building communities and making sensible preparations. My heart goes out to the people victimized by the producers of this show.
Thankfully, with inexpensive video cameras and editing software, we can make our own educational television. Many have already unplugged mass media and many more will follow. Good-bye National Geographic.