Livin’ for the Apocalypse

As long as my cell phone works, I’m fine.

— Angela Layton, Miss Utah Teen USA 2010

Livin’ for the Apocalypse: the title sets expectations for TLC’s new reality special about people preparing for global catastrophe. The dropped “g” — livin’!— suggests a light-hearted look at a quirky but harmless subculture. The show lives up to that implicit promise, but only just, providing superficial, diverting entertainment, but without any genuine insight into the apocalyptic mindset.

Livin’ for the Apocalypse profiles four groups of people, all of whom believe in some sort of impending doom. Given the show’s 44-minute running time, the subjects have about 11 minutes each to explain themselves, and most of that time goes to detailing their catastrophe planning. But their preparations are predictably similar. They build shelters (if they can afford to). They stock up on canned food. Some stock up on guns. On man, “Survival Doc,” hoards silver because he worries about the collapse of the dollar. He also advises, “Alcohol is a good bartering item.”

In other words, the show rarely goes beyond easy stereotypes. Without overt editorializing — voice-over narration segues from one segment to the next, but virtually no “outsiders” appear on camera — it does allow the subjects to speak for themselves. But they seldom, as edited, reveal much about themselves.

Peggy and Scott Layton, for example, live in Utah and have seven children. Peggy runs a business providing aromatherapy, massage, and hypnotherapy. She also sells how-to books on storing nonperishable food. Speaking directly to the camera, she says, “My greatest passion and my love is being prepared.”

An obvious follow-up question might be: why? But the show never entertains any such inquiry. And when the Layton parents, presented as the most “normal” and middle-class subjects on the show, wish their children were more prepared, that generational tension goes unexamined. Why don’t the kids share their parents’ fears? How does the family negotiate such divergent worldviews? Livin’ for the Apocalypse remains genial toward its subjects, and never pushes them to explain.

This lack of curiosity can be distracting. “Survival Doc” refuses to use his real name, despite it appearing on literally the first Google hit for his nom de guerre. His Twitter handle is “Obamaphobia,” with a profile picture of the President dressed as Hitler. The show manages to reveal nothing of his politics and, again, fails to consider why he might see the looming end of everything. He’s reduced to a slogan. “Obviously you can’t protect everything,” he says, “and that’s the reason the survival motto is ‘One is none and two is one,’ because if something happens to one, then you’ve got two to fall back on. This is reminder that anything can happen to anyone at any time. There are no guarantees in life, and you could be taken out at any time.” What are the origins of such an existential, Hobbesian fear?

Livin’ for the Apocalypse steadfastly refuses to acknowledge fear, because doing so would remove it from the realm of casual entertainment. “Quirky,” one-dimensional characters, by contrast, entertain viewers from a safe remove, so we never have to think through the deeply serious issues implied by what they say. When another preparer says that, after the ill-defined apocalypse, “I’m not a cannibal, but it might come to that,” it’s easy to laugh. It’s harder to know why someone would choose to live that way.

Yet as Michael Shermer points out, “Emotionally, the end of the world is actually a renewal, a transition to a new beginning and a better life to come.” Even within the show’s limitations, it’s impossible to miss the strong emotional investment these people have in the end of the world — or rather, the end of a world. Clustered in the American west and southwest, where the myth of frontier individualism remains potent as ever, they imagine themselves building for a post-society world, for a war of all against all, or at best a neo-tribalism. When one subject says, “The world as we know it, and especially our country, is coming to an end,” it’s hard not to catch a note of gleeful superiority in her words. She will be one of the elect, the chosen few who survive: livin’ for the apocalypse, then, means dreaming of another world in order to get by in this one.

RATING 5 / 10