The virulent Nuclear Flu scourged the earth last week, when seven lucky Americans escaped uninfected to a 10-acre VOPA (Viral Outbreak Protection Agency) way station where, after 72 hours’ quarantine, they waved goodbye to the friendly government helicopter and settled in for 50 days of pure survival in the burnt-out carcass of a Gulf Coast neighborhood still smarting from Katrina, and harboring a mob of hostile Others. The colonists’ motto? “Survive—Rebuild—Thrive.” Or as former construction foreman Reno quips, in the new world order: “It doesn’t matter what your credit score is.” It’s survival of the fittest.
It sounds like the plot of a Stephen King novel, or the shorthand notes of Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof plotting out seasons 4 and 5 of LOST (Deville actually comes pretty close when he says “Die together, live together”). In reality—reality tv to be exact—it’s Discovery Channel’sThe Colony, back for a second season of social experimentation and simulated apocalypse. Of course, “simulated” might be too weak a word when the backstory involves a false government agency with a very convincing acronyms and the detailed pathology of an Avian Flu variant already mapped out.
“Reality” tv isn’t just the realm of Snooki, Ryan Seacrest, and Co this summer—the Discovery Channel has created in The Colony a frighteningly realistic portrayal of life after a major global catastrophe.
“The volunteers,” our ominous-sounding narrator tells us in the first few minutes, “have signed their lives away for 50 days.” And if that doesn’t do the trick, next two lines prove without a doubt that thisisn’t the reality tv American audiences are used to: “This is not a competition. I will receive no cash prize.”
If you’re wondering who would sign up for this, you’re not alone. Tuesdays at 10/9c on the Discovery Channel give us an hour of the really rather heroic survival efforts of VOPA’s motley crew:
Reno, 28, a construction foreman instantly welcomed as a leader by (most) the other bedraggled colonists
Robert Deville, 70 (!), a retired contractor whose advanced age and experience fuels a number of quite insightful suggestions. My favorite—“Upstairs we can defend ourselves, kind of like you would do in the old time castle days when you could throw stuff down.” I’d make a joke about whether he remembers ye olde dayes, but that wouldn’t be respecting my elders.
Jim, 42, a carpenter who from the first sitting speaks to the camera in the mindset of a relieved survivor (“they let me out of quarantine today…”)
George, 46, the artist/inventor who’s currently sitting secure on the omega rung of the social ladder
Sian, 39, a teacher who actually covers geologic disasters and resources in her courses
Sally, 28, an auto mechanic whose skill sets couldn’t possibly be more useful
And Becca, 22, not only the youngest of the bunch but a model no less—and yet, despite stereotypes, level-headed and efficient.
With no power from the grid, no running (or, often, even potable for that matter) water, no communication, and the constant threat not only of environmental dangers but hostile marauders from the outside, The Colony is Survivor the way it out to be—group politics aplenty, but a lot higher stakes and much more drama than finding a hidden immunity idol under a rock.
The incentive for the participants might be cloudy at this point—an adventure? An ill-placed bet? an outlet for socially-inappropriate machismo?—but for viewers this is entertainment that turns from fantasy to horror when we realize that the disasters we think of as science fiction could easily be science fact. There’s no denying something raised goosebumps when I realized that all I could offer in a VOPA “safe zone” would be lessons on using microfilm readers.
So here’s a warning to potential viewers: Be prepared to stock up on flint and water when the episode’s over. Oh, and possibly grenades.