Doomsday Preppers: Exploitative, Uninteresting, Unreal “Reality”

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.

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26 Comments

  1. You asked, “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?”

    While I still have cable TV, I’m down to the bare-bones $18/month “package” – and this fall’s presidential mudslinging tsunami might just push me into canceling it altogether. As far as I can tell, TV is indeed our national tranquilizer, designed to keep us distracted and occupied so we don’t notice what all is really going on in the world.

    Richard Heinberg had this to say yesterday in an essay on postcarbon.org (http://www.postcarbon.org/article/1057153-our-cooperative-darwinian-moment):

    “Meanwhile the American populace seems incapable of raising an alarm or responding to it, consisting as it does of a large under-class that is over-fed but under-nourished, over-entertained but misinformed, over-indebted and under-skilled; and a much smaller over-class that lives primarily by financial predation and is happy to tune out any evidence of the dire impacts of its activities.”

    Too true, unfortunately.

  2. Since I didn’t have a television connection, I finally saw that first episode in a series of short videos, I think. I was sooo impressed with the pool, tilapia, and chickens and such. I still want to know more!

    The two familiy units that worked together was interesting in that they had complimentary skills. Somehow, I thought they had different abodes. The one man in that group who could build anything was so impressive. It’s too bad that reality shows exist to ridicule people and marginalize people who are taking care of themselves.

    At least, the people victimized speak out so that maybe some of the viewers know the truth.

    I really want the chicken, tilapia, produce setup!

    I was not inspired to watch another episode.

  3. Additional tidbit of info: turns out National Geographic channel is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Cable Networks, a division of News Corp.

  4. I have very little exposure to television, but it is easy to believe much of “reality” television is manipulated by the producers from the small amount I have seen. These two worlds also collide (generic homesteading vs. end timers) in a pretty humorous way in Wendy McClure’s book, Wilder Life, which I finally got around to reading. Although our family is moving towards a more self-sustaining lifestyle for many reasons, we can’t help but think, if anything happened, we would be better prepared than some. I imagine this is the case for many in this movement.

  5. I would agree that the Doomsday Preppers show is not top quality. I frequent the blog of one of the subjects of an episode and figured out in the first few seconds of her segment the scripted nature of the “reasons” the subjects were prepping. Not once have I ever read her worrying about a New Madrid fault earthquake that would cut off supply lines across the Mississippi.

    Vapid as they tried to make the show, I did find it interesting to see some of these folks ideas for storage, power supplies, etc.

    For one viewer at least, the subjects got their message across rather than the producers.

    Also thanks for the link to the garden pool guy! I have wanted to see more about his setup for a long time and didn’t even know he has a page. Thank you.

  6. Reality tv is so scripted and manipulated, it’s the very reason why my bf abandoned the film industry entirely (he went to NYU, and was an assistant cameraman on “The Apprentice”) and is now working on a biodynamic farm in Norcal. He’s also completely jaded to the notion of documentaries as well. It’s a shame, since he is such a gifted film maker.. no longer. I don’t know which is worse, the shows, or the people that watch them and allow themselves to be manipulated into believing it’s the truth.

  7. Have watched it for the laugh it is. Do feel sorry for the people who are serious about their being prepared, or like the McClures, have created a wonderful habitat in a harsh environment, and are being made to look like fools.. The McClures are a local legend and know at least one person trying to repeat this in their unused pool. I also liked the guy who was making sure he had vacuum packed, hydrogen packed seed available. then there was the woman putting packages of instant soup mix and spaghetti in the hollow core doors of her house . . .
    and the poor guy in tucson who shot off his thumb in front of his kids. at least, then, the camera staff stepped in for first aid and getting him to the hospital.

  8. When we start producing, we soon discover how fun and deeply satisfying it is. The food tastes better. Some deep instincts are tickled. We naturally start to join and build community, which adds to the fun and satisfaction in a “virtuous cycle.”

    We have such a good time producing, in fact, that we want to share it with everyone. We write books. We blog. We make art. We tell all our friends. We give food gifts to the neighbors.

    This threatens The System, which counts on us to consume. It requires “growth” for stability. This TV/subconscious-level ridicule is one of its tried-and-true responses. I hope in this case it might backfire. Hopefully the awesomeness of these people will come through despite the manipulations, and actually push more towards the produce mindset, than the consume mindset the show apparently (consciously or subconsciously) espouses.

    There are signs that The System is beginning to realize that its days are numbered.

    Humans are conforming social animals. We tend to look to authority instead of thinking for ourselves. TV has become the principal mouthpiece of that authority.

    Smash your TV and be free!

  9. I am so glad you blogged about this. My partner saw that first episode of the show when he was visiting family in Alaska and was telling me how totally cool the garden pool was, so I’m very excited to get to read more about how it works. Maybe because we’re already so interested in these things, he was able to look beyond the manufactured and snide “drama” of the show to admire what the people featured were creating. But it bothers me that other viewers, who could potentially be inspired to envision something more than a suburban lawn at their own homes, will be turned off by the mockery and portrayal of these resilience pioneers as paranoid weirdos on the fringe.
    Hearing that Nat Geo is owned by Murdoch and Fox makes me wonder if it isn’t all part of a corporate-interest plot to discredit self-sufficiency and make people fear that mockery will descend upon their own heads should they show any interest in similar homesteading-type activities. The more self-sufficient and local-community oriented we become, the less we will contribute to big-money’s bottom line. (Or am I just being a paranoid weirdo on the fringe…? )

  10. I just watched the first episode on youtube. The show is ridiculous as expected, but wow, those two setups (McClures and Scott & Dave) are amazing!

    Despite the corny and dishonest production, the fun those folks are having in their quests for self-sufficiency still shines through. Wood chip truck? C’mon, how awesome is that?!?

  11. This was an awesome piece of media analysis. i unplugged from tv long ago but still catch it at other people’s places. The obnoxious and obvious effort to keep people watching so that they’ll watch the real programming–the much better written and produced advertisements–always turns my stomach.

  12. I recall seeing the first episode when it aired and being rather impressed with the set ups involved. I actually frequent the blog of one woman and recalling that was NOT what she seemed like in her writing and advice and was actually relieved when she spoke out against it in her blog later…

    I really wish folks would stop demonizing those who wish to live alternative life styles. If I want to have chickens, ride my bike everywhere and use unconventional items I’ll do it, dammit!

  13. This is a great discussion. Why am I not surprised at who owns the the Nat Geo channel? It would not be beyond the realm of possibility that they would want to discredit any form of self-sufficiency (as per Suzanne’s post). I haven’t seen the show, but just the photo of the people in the gas masks is enough to inspire ridicule. I will say that I sometimes have the DIY channel on as background when I am grading papers, and several times they have featured house or yard renovations at the homes of families who have backyard chickens, raised beds, etc., and the families were treated with respect.
    Now, what I would really like to see are some lists of recommended videos/YouTube channels, etc. that feature “educational television” for Root Simple readers. I know that you have recommended some, but how about an expanded list, in categories (gardening, aquaponics, greenhouses, water collection/storage, etc.)? Something to keep me watching for a long time…

  14. I get a kick out of the Fox News conspiracy theories. This is the same type of reality garbage that has come to dominate all of the self-described educational channels. There’s only 3 types of shows anymore: Bargaining for Junk shows, People With Sucky Jobs shows, and These People Are Weird shows.

    Obviously Preppers was meant to fall in the latter category, but I think it ultimately fails to make them look very weird at all. Sure, they force the preppers to provide some doomsday prophecy that motivates them, but the sub-titled response from the authorities comes off as ironic at best (i.e. “The Department of Homeland Security pinky-swears that this could never happen.”) And if they are so weird, why does the show have a panel of experts determine exactly how weird these folks are and how they can improve on their weirdness?

    I only saw the first 4-5 episodes, but my take on it was that its very confused. Its as if someone made a “These people are doing interesting things” Show, and then some exec made them change it to a These People Are Weird show, or else someone set out to make a These People Are Weird show and couldn’t figure out how to make them look weird enough. Either way its a win for those of us who sometimes give thought to just how bad our present situation can get.

  15. I always did like The Good Life/Good Neighbors, even if it was a sitcom, as it coincided with my first adventures into gardening, goats, chickens, etc. back in the 1970s.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Good_Life_(1975_TV_series)

    From the site:
    “There are many organic gardening and self-sufficiency movements within the UK who continue to this day to claim that The Good Life was inspirational and influenced their own lifestyle changes. In many ways, the show was years ahead of its time in addressing ideas that were then far from mainstream.”

  16. Haven’t seen the show (turned off the cable a while ago), but I have seen the Garden Pool website! -Pretty awesome stuff! I would have loved to have seen at least an hour dedicated to its construction and upkeep.

  17. It’s called television “programming” for a reason. So many people close to me have zoned out on life because of television. They have literally been programmed into some form of group think.

    On a side note, I took a flight the other day out of Ontario, CA airport and TSA had one line to get into… the gas chamber, eerrrrrr, I mean the cancer body scanner. Before it was my turn I asked wheres the pat down line? And they looked at me like I was a nut. What do you mean sir?? “Yah… Im not going in that machine. I want the pat down instead. Thanks.”

    CODE RED CODE RED!!

    They called for backup re-enforcements. They pulled me to the side. This was all done in front of everyone in line. A big show of #1 authority and #2 a psychological ploy on everyone else in line. If you ask for the pat down, this is whats in store. You get singled out like you are a bad person in front of everyone. Then, after they got their man to pat me I was interrogated… So why would you like the pat down sir? “Well Ive heard things” … you’ve heard things? like what? “Yah, a new report issued last month says TSA operators of the body canners have increased cancer levels.” Ohh is that so? Well thats probably from the x-ray machines, not from the new scanners. You dont have to worry about these now. I asked him if he really believed the hogwash he was forced to tell me. He was cool about it and chuckled. I could tell it was a nervous chuckle. He then asked if Im ready. Ready? For what??? I was told I could go into a private screening if this might offend me. WTF? If its going to offend me it should not be done at all idiot!!!!

    So right there I stand on the two footprints told to spread my legs wide, spread my arms out wide all in front of the entire line of people waiting for the body scanner. This way everyone can see. A public humiliation of sorts in front of everyone. Pulling my pants open and putting his hands in all around my waist brushing my pubic hair. Squeezing me genitals. Squeezing my buttocks, taking off my socks and inspecting them. WTF? WAY TOO FAR. Hell, come to think of it, my wife has never even taken my socks off! Just myself and a TSA agent.

    I filed a complaint and was on my way shaking my head as to why this continues day in and day out.

    What really gets me is that NOT ONE PERSON opted for the pat down. Not one. Its like Nazi Germany all over again. If we were told to go into the gas chamber to take a shower 99% of the people would definitely do it. Maybe since Im the rebel I get a bullet in my head. Everyone else? Sure, they think they will live longer, less hassle and are safe but they’ll die a bit later than me. When they get cancer at 55 not understanding why.

    The psychological pressure was felt afterwards too. While I walked around the airport lobby waiting for my flight… buying some water, buying a magazine for the flight, going to the bathroom… I was eyeballed by others who were waiting in line for TSA. When on the plane I was also eyeballed by everyone. Like I was a bad guy doing bad things.

    If we all say NO to the body scanners and TSA they would go away. But we continue to let it happen. At least 99% of us anyways. Yesterday, I was ashamed of my fellow Americans.

    • Argh! Again? Didn’t your wife have a nightmare encounter with them (if I recall correctly from my grope post?)?

      I read your comment aloud to Erik and he said, “That’s why I take Amtrack.”

      I take Amtrack whenever I can, but I had to fly just two weeks ago and I opted for a grope and had the exact same experience as I have the other times: which, in brief, was fairly mellow.

      This particular TSA agent had a sense of humor, which was novel. It took 5 minutes and I felt no sense of humiliation. I spent the pat down time watching my fellow travelers people “assume the position” in the porno scanner, wondering why they are so willing to do it. (I actually think a great deal of it comes from a morbid fear of delay: the scanner is objectionable, but the thought of being held up and missing your flight is even more so.)

      Anyway, this is my question: They have a script. Every time I’ve done this they’ve followed the script: both a procedural script for them and a scripted speech they give to me. This has created a consistent experience every time.

      However, clearly, sometimes they go off script. They went off script with you in several ways. For instance, part of the script is that they’ll only use the back of their hands to touch you in “sensitive areas” — and they did so for me — but if they squeezed you, they were off script (you can’t squeeze with the back of your hands!)

      Why?

      Also, opting out for the pat down is supposed to be a basic option open to anyone, so why the questioning?

      Who knows what goes on in the tiny dark mind of the TSA?

  18. I found the show to be surprisingly good. The people portrayed in the program seem genuine and many of their ideas are actually very insightful. It may seem unreal to those who’ve watched to much reality T.V. but having met many who share this mindset, the show made for a very entertaining evening. Since the first time I viewed it I have recorded every episode religiously. I for one salute the show and will continue to be a loyal fan. It has proven to be fertile ground for me, and I have taken a great deal of the methodology described to heart.

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