Andre Braugher, right, in "Last Resort." (Mario Perez, ABC )
Armageddon is about to get unprecedented amounts of TV airtime. In the coming months, network and cable channels will use doomsday as a hook to draw viewers to end-times-themed reality competitions, action thrillers, comic-book adaptations and docu-dramas.
Blame the Mayans, or mangled interpretations of their hieroglyphics, for the reenergized fascination with the apocalypse, which some 15% of the global population believes could come on Dec. 21, according to a recent Reuters poll.
Or chalk it up to human nature, which can't seem to get enough of cataclysmic entertainment, even against the backdrop of serious real-world economic problems, political instability and news reports of asteroids, avian flu and cannibalistic assaults.
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"We used to go to church to hear stories about catastrophic ends of the world," said Stephen O'Leary, a USC communication professor and expert on Armageddon and apocalyptic sects. "Now we turn on the TV or go to the movies. People have been telling these stories for thousands of years, but what we have today are updated versions of angels and demons, good and evil, and powers from the sky."
This fall, NBC will launch "Revolution," a drama from J.J. Abrams' production company about a mysterious global blackout that sets off mass panic and destruction. On ABC, thrillers "Last Resort" and "Zero Hour" both have apocalyptic overtones.
Then there's "The Walking Dead,"a massive zombiepocalypse hit for AMC that averaged 6.9 million viewers in Season 2; Season 3 premieres Oct. 14. Meanwhile, TNT's alien-themed surprise hit,"Falling Skies," is averaging more than 4 million fans a week and will return for a third season next summer.
TNT also ordered another global-catastrophe-themed drama called "The Last Ship" from executive producer Michael Bay.
Even Tom Hanks is weighing in, with a new animated post-apocalyptic adventure, "Electric City," which premiered on Yahoo on July 17.
"There's something in the zeitgeist right now that's making these stories even more intriguing," said Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of "The Walking Dead" and a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy aficionado. "With the global economy being a mess, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wars, everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop and affect them personally. But with some of this entertainment, they can experience it once removed."
Eric Kripke, creator and executive producer of "Revolution," said there can be stark realism in the sometimes outlandish scenarios of apocalyptic shows. "This genre allows viewers to imagine the 'what if?' How would they react in that situation? Would they have the grit it takes to survive?" Kripke said. "People like giving themselves that gut check."
It's not just TV executives who have Armageddon on the brain these days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign recently about surviving a zombie pandemic that turned out to be the agency's most attention-grabbing outreach. And of course movie theaters have hosted a wave of apocalyptic blockbusters like"The Hunger Games," which will have three sequels, and the upcoming"Total Recall" and "World War Z."
TV, though, is doing its best to prime the pump. NatGeoTV conducted a recent survey to promote its new series "Chasing UFOs," finding that 65% of those polled thought Barack Obama would be better equipped than Republican rival Mitt Romney to handle a potential alien invasion of Earth. The channel launched Doomsday Dashboard to monitor Twitter talk about the apocalypse.
NatGeo's popular reality show "Doomsday Preppers," which looks at people's often elaborate and expensive end-times plans, will return in the fall for a second season. The network's highest-rated series during its spring run, it had nearly 4.3 million people tuning in to the two-hour premiere.
National Geographic Channels Chief Executive David Lyle says he thought the over-the-top, armed-to-the-teeth participants on "Doomsday Preppers" were "total separatist nutters living in the hills, militia-style" before the show. But he found preppers, no matter how rabidly they predict the excrement will hit the fan, to be "the parents at the PTA."
"There's a real pioneer spirit underlying this movement, with people prepared to circle the wagons to protect themselves and their families against the great unknown," Lyle said. "They're strangely relatable."
Spike TV will premiere a competition series, "Last Family on Earth," that will try to decide who among the competitors is worthy of carrying on the human race in the face of catastrophic events.
And though Discovery Channel hasn't decided to bring back the modest hit "Doomsday Bunkers," which followed a Dallas-based company called Deep Earth Bunker and its clients, the network has some one-hour end-of-the-world specials in mind for this year.