Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Omega Man: The Reality Show

After turning on my TV last night to watch The Wanted, which was even more insane than I could have imagined (imagine a cross between 24, 60 Minutes and Ali G, as our overacting reality heroes confront real-life Norwegian government officials with evidence of the terrorist living in their midst in, as one of the dudes says during the opening briefing: "Norway? As in, Nobel Peace Price Norway?"), this morning I am greeted with news of Discovery's new show: The Colony, in which a dozen "volunteers" are subject to a 10-week simulation of post-apocalyptic survival in a barren industrial neighborhood of L.A.

The scenario is apparently straight out of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (the subject of *three* Hollywood movies) — the rest of the population has been wiped out by viral plague. Complete with liberating sprees of looting, patrols of empty concrete overpasses with overloaded shopping carts, and opportunities for tribal violence.

Yes, there will also be actors paid to attack the "colonists" in the capacity of Mad Max-style marauders.

Do you suppose the producers will intervene when cannibalism develops?

NYT: It’s Doomsday Once Again. Are We Having Fun Yet?

The end of the world happens again and again in tales of fiction. Now it is getting the reality-show treatment.

Mercifully, the producers, including the tough-guy documentarian Thom Beers, are not causing an actual cataclysm for the benefit of their cameras. Instead they are doing it the Hollywood way: decorating an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles, casting 10 people to rebuild society, and isolating them for two months with minimal food and water.

Their television series, “The Colony,” makes its debut on the Discovery Channel on Tuesday night. The show is a gamble on the part of Discovery and Mr. Beers, who is best known for “Deadliest Catch,” as it seeks to capitalize on society’s fascination with the postapocalypse...

John Cohn, a senior scholar at I.B.M., said in an interview that he signed up as a cast member to sharpen his engineering skills and try to survive with limited resources. Also appealing, he said, was “the promise of disconnecting from the regular world.”

Notably, “The Colony” is not a vote-someone-out-of-civilization show. There is no prize money (just a nominal payment). The 10 cast members — recruited for their skills, not selected in auditions — are pointedly called volunteers instead of contestants. The series is essentially a social experiment, albeit one set up by cameramen instead of scientists...

In the first episode the volunteers adopt their roles surprisingly quickly. Mr. Cohn is shown standing nude outside the warehouse and taking a shower in a sudden rainstorm. “I’m amazed how unself-conscious we were so soon” after starting, he said when interviewed.

Mr. Cohn said the situations seemed real because of the limited resources. When actors pretend to break into the warehouse during the episodes, for instance, the volunteers take the threats seriously.

“Even though, intellectually, I knew these people weren’t trying to kill us, they were trying to take our peanut butter,” he said.

The show stands out on Discovery because that science- and history-oriented channel does not normally manufacture circumstances for its shows.

But while the premise is faked, the show is well within “Discovery territory,” Mr. Ford said, because it documents survival skills and ingenuity under pressure.

The series opens with the foreboding comments of Adam Montella, described by the show as a private homeland security adviser.

“Disasters can happen at any time and at any place,” Mr. Montella says, listing calamities: wars, nuclear explosions, natural disasters, chemical warfare. (Keep those in mind for sequels.)

Then a narrator explains the season’s premise: a viral outbreak has decimated the world’s population. Chaos ensues. Los Angeles is devastated. Ten strangers try to rebuild a society in a warehouse called the Sanctuary.

To simulate the shock after a disaster, the volunteers were kept awake for 30 straight hours before they hiked along the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River to the warehouse. As the series progressed, the volunteers faced questions about leadership and interpersonal relationships. Mr. Cohn had recently finished rereading “Lord of the Flies” and found similarities to it in the staging. “We even had the equivalent of a conch when people would talk over each other in the meetings,” he said.

How about that? J.G. Ballard often suggested his narrative approach used the novel as a social psychological laboratory experiment in which none of the participants could be hurt. Using a science fictional premise as the basis of an *actual* social psych experiment is something else entirely. What does the release of liability for a paid participant in a simulated post-apocalyptic looting, starving and marauding situation look like?

Kim Newman, in his excellent survey Apocalypse Movies, points out that the only works of most science fiction writers to get filmed are their post-apocalyptic stories. Why is that? Why did Cormac McCarthy's unrelentingly bleak The Road become a bestselling Oprah selection and a soon-to-be-released Viggo vehicle? Why, of all the experimental psychological premises in science fiction, is it the ruined world that gets picked for its own well-produced reality show?

I have argued elsewhere that post-apocalyptic narratives are, perhaps more compellingly so than other sf premises, counterintuitive opportunities for psychological realism that more accurately depict what it *feels* like to be alive today than any conventional realism can muster. That the point of view of the central protagonist in The Road is an alter ego for all of us. An articulator of the state of our alienation — from each other, from nature, from ourselves — and a fantasy of liberation from private property regimes, state apparatuses, and socially-mandated constraints on the use of violence.

(See The Politics of Apocalypse, and my soon-to-be published essay from the 2009 Festival de Mexico's conference on Mundos Paralelos.)

One can only hope the producers will employ actual psychologists (and perhaps a semiotician or two?) to understand more fully the experience of the participants in The Colony.

What other science fiction scenarios would be especially well-suited to a reality show simulation that all the participants want to be real?

The Man (or woman) who fell to Earth?

The Rip van Winkle scenario?

The time traveling hunter?

The marooned spaceship?

The alien abduction?

The secret conspiracy?

Is The Colony really just telling us the truth: that our lives are no more real than reality shows, as we each live out media-implanted social scenarios in front of the imaginary camera eye in our heads?

Scenarios that lay over our primate programming to ensure our productivity and just manage to maintain the tenuous social fabric of our mutated society?

Save me some popcorn.

In other news, today's Wall Street Journal has an amazing feature on Mexican Narco-Bling (courtesy of BruceS). Fantasy fetish objects for midtown investment bankers? I imagine an Almada Brothers movie version of Jack Womack's Ambient, with gold-plated Uzis and Gucci death's heads.

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