Why We’re Hooked on Post-Apocalypse TV

Source: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Ever since man has been able to tell stories, we’ve tried to predict how the world will end. Whether it’s an asteroid like the ones depicted in both Armageddon and Deep Impact, or the Earth itself is turning on us like it did in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, our fascination with humanity’s end has deep roots in Hollywood. It’s only recently though that TV has come around to the same trend, as over the last few years networks have been inundated with shows that begin directly after an apocalypse has occurred.

So why has television so recently become fascinated with how humanity does in the wake of the end of days? Some of this could be attributed to American audiences’ feelings toward our current political system; without diving too far down the rabbit hole, people have never been more displeased with their government, as we live in the most polarized political climate since the Civil War. A general air of “let’s just throw it all away and start over” seems to be setting in, and now our TV shows are reflecting this.

There’s of course a practical storytelling aspect to this that has nothing to do with politics. A TV universe thrives off of being able to make its own rules. In a show like House of Cards, the characters progress through the story by manipulating a set of rules already in place (which in itself makes for compelling television). For a post-apocalypse drama though, the characters can make their own rules. There are very few (if any) limits to what they’re allowed to do, and more often than not, we see our heroes come to terms with a new morality that forces them to compromise everything they used to believe in.

This post-Earth storytelling motif is fast becoming the norm for television. For every complex Game of Thrones-esque world of rules and complex political system, two more shows pop up depicting the end of days at the hands of any number of horrific natural (or unnatural) disasters.

In light of this, it’s a wonder we haven’t stopped watching these shows altogether. What’s keeping things interesting from a creative standpoint seems to be that no one can agree on just how the world will end. In The Walking Dead, we jump into the story directly after the planet’s population has been taken over by a zombies (or if you’re using the show’s lexicon, “walkers”). The world came crashing down in the wake of panic and disease, and The Walking Dead chooses to explore the theme of how humanity would function in a lawless and perilous new society.

Flip over to the CW, and even the network known more for tween dramas like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl is getting in on the action. Both gritty and surprisingly thought-provoking, The 100 imagines a world nearly a century after we were decimated by nuclear war, where children are sent down to the surface from an orbiting sanctuary in space to repopulate Earth. It’s equal parts Lord of the Flies and On The Beach, telling a tale of humanity being relegated back to tribal culture, making new laws and new wars, and learning the sacrifices that come with survival.

This fascination with how we’d act as a society if we had the ability to start over from scratch is a recurring theme that’s getting difficult to ignore network to network. The list goes on from The Walking Dead and The 100: TNT went for the alien apocalypse with Falling Skies, while FOX tried the “worldwide electrical blackout” angle in the recently cancelled Revolution. Each show presents its own host of challenges for its characters, with everything from “no really guys, how are we going to not starve to death?” to “well, flashlights don’t work anymore because our absurd blackout premise says so.”

Regardless of the challenges, the point remains the same: TV has developed a love affair with hitting “reboot” on the world as we know it. The reason for this could very well be as simple as the fact that people are so fed up with the society we have now that they’d rather start over completely. Whether it’s that, a more politically nuanced explanation, or just because great storytelling comes from a universe that makes its own rules, the post-apocalypse seems here to stay.

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