Dr. Tom Perez teaches his kids the prepping way on "Doomsday Preppers." (National Geographic Channel )
There have always been people getting ready for the end of the world, or the end of the world "as we know it." But lately it has become A Thing, with a name — a cute name, "prepping," like scrapbooking, or birding.
Often it is a family activity, and an Internet-facilitated community has grown up among people who, though their specific fears vary — whether they see the apocalypse coming by flood or by fire, by disease or disaster, human attack or ecological meltdown — all share an interest in staying alive.
National Geographic Channel's popular "Doomsday Preppers," which begins its second season Tuesday night with back-to-back episodes, has done much to bring this subculture into the spotlight. It is the network's highest-rated show ever, surpassing even "Border Wars," "Drugs, Inc." and "Alaska State Troopers," and though it can play as a freak show from outside, it is also respectful to its subjects.
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But for a brief coda at the end of each segment, when the narrator points out that the thing they are preparing for will most likely never happen, it gives the preppers their say, and doesn't undercut them with amusing musical cues or funny sound effects. These are people for whom "The Walking Dead" is just a documentary waiting to happen.
Besides guns, canned food, a "bugging out" plan and a secure location off the grid to bug out to, they have the common conviction that when the cataclysm comes, however it comes, there will be panic in the streets and anarchy in the USA: "You would resort back to a hunter-gatherer living in small broken packs," prophesies Johnny O, whose special concern is terrorist attacks on American nuclear facilities.
They are not stupid, certainly; indeed, they are ingenious and capable. If anything, they think too much and suffer from a kind of sociopolitical hypochondria, in which the worst-case scenario is interpreted as the likely outcome.
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Neither, on the evidence of "Doomsday Preppers," are they particularly aggressive. Guns notwithstanding, in the post-apocalypse movies that run in their heads, they are the good guys, honest and self-sustaining and on the defensive against "attackers from the city," as someone puts it here, coming for their canned goods, homemade jerky and fresh-laid eggs.
Still, it's hard not to feel for young Jason from tiny Plato, Mo. (pop. 109), who is awaiting worldwide financial collapse with his homemade, nail-studded "mace-ball bat," and that his is a life on the verge of going completely wrong. "I'm not afraid to have to kill," Jason says, in his camouflage pants and dog tag, and there seems to be no question in his mind that it will come to that. ("Jason has always been a worrywart," says his mother.)
Or for Big Al, from Nashville, who is getting ready for old-school nuclear war by digging down into the earth and surrounding himself with steel. ("I prefer not to use the term 'bunker' — to me, it's an underground house.") He spends months at a time by himself down there, training for the inevitable — which he expects to weather alone — cooking different combinations of canned goods and, you know, spending too much time alone. One leg pumps constantly as he talks.
The preppers don't want my pity, of course — quite the opposite, I'm sure. The joke will be on me, they would say, when I am expiring from fallout or smallpox, being carried away in a tornado or torn apart by the hungry ravaging hordes. (I am not even prepared for the Big Earthquake that might more probably get me.)
On the other hand, if the end never comes, as they picture it, they may have to consider the possibility they have wasted time and energy that might have been more profitably spent in their short time on Earth. (Though there is clearly some fun mixed in with the fearfulness.)
And if it does, in the way they expect it to, it'll be a cold sort of satisfaction.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)
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