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Zombies, Power Outages, Global Pandemics: Why TV Is Embracing the Apocalypse

Feb 14, 2014 10:48 AM ET
by Michael Schneider

The Walking Dead

If it’s the end of the world as we know it, TV feels fine. Led by shows including AMC’s The Walking Dead, TNT’s Falling Skies and NBC’s Revolution, postapocalyptic TV is blowing up — and a lot more of it is on the way.

“There’s a huge appeal right at the moment,” says Revolution executive producer Rockne S. O’Bannon. Among the upcoming shows that revolve around a dystopian future: The CW’s The 100 (debuting Wed., March 19, at 9/8c), which follows a group of juvenile delinquents who are shipped from a space station back to Earth in order to see whether it’s inhabitable a century after a nuclear holocaust. (The network also just ordered a pilot for The Messengers, about a group of people who are killed, then resurrected, after something crashes into Earth.)

In July comes FX’s The Strain — created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and executive produced by Lost‘s Carlton Cuse — which stars Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as an epidemiologist charged with preventing a mysterious viral outbreak from destroying humanity. Also this summer, TNT’s The Last Ship, from producer Michael Bay, centers on the crew of a naval destroyer tasked with saving humanity after 80 percent of the planet is wiped out by a pandemic. Eric Dane, Rhona Mitra and Adam Baldwin star.

At HBO, Cuse’s old Lost partner, Damon Lindelof, has co-created the upcoming drama The Leftovers, based on the 2011 novel by Tom Perrotta about what happens to the people who remain after a global rapturelike event. The Leftovers stars Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman and Liv Tyler.

Netflix is still kicking the tires on CBS’ long-canceled post-nuclear explosion mystery Jericho, which it has considered reviving. Execs at the streaming service said fans shipped them several more boxes of peanuts over the holidays.

Amazon’s contribution is the recently available-for-streaming pilot for The After, Chris Carter‘s first TV project since The X-Files ended in 2002. Carter says he isn’t rushing to label the show as post-apocalyptic, but admits it still has all the characteristics: Eight strangers are thrown together after an unseen force brings about a world-wide power outage and mass hysteria. After gauging viewer reaction, Amazon will decide in the spring whether to bring The After to series.

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The time is right for such projects, Carter says, because “there’s a huge anxiety in the world right now. And I think you could go back to the Dec. 21, 2012 date, the Mayan calendar [apocalypse] date. There was nervousness. It was in the air. That certainly was something that figured into this. Because it was so real. Certainly the power of that played a part in my desire to do something about a world-changing event.”

The After was inspired by a trip Carter took to Hawaii in the 1980s, when a hurricane hit the islands and he was struck by how quickly paradise descended into chaos. Carter was also influenced by the time he witnessed Los Angeles turn into a mess of gridlock after a single truck accidentally sprayed nails on a freeway. “I got to experience what would happen if there were a catastrophe,” he says.

O’Bannon thinks apocalyptic stories are in vogue because it seems increasingly likely that these types of events could actually happen.

“History is full of them,” he says. “The History channel is full of these stories. The Bible is like an apocalypse smorgasbord. We’re always looking over our shoulder and waiting for mass death and destruction to somehow slam into us, we just don’t know how. “

Climate change has triggered unusual weather patterns around the globe. A solar flare or an electromagnetic pulse impacting the electrical grid is a real concern. News headlines regularly tout the potential of massive earthquakes and asteroid near-misses, and terrorist threats remain an ongoing fear.

But several producers agree that the nation’s ongoing economic uncertainties — coupled with an increasingly polarized political landscape — have created an undercurrent of anxiety in society that shows like The Walking Dead have tapped into. People are acutely aware that disaster, be it a natural one, or a money one, can strike at any time (just like an errant zombie). Perhaps Jericho, which launched in 2006, was simply a few years too early, as TV’s latest crop of post-apocalyptic shows really took off after the 2008 recession.

“I think there’s just an inherent fascination and fear of apocalypse,” O’Bannon says. “It immediately taps into that very kind of visceral, natural vein. So a show like Revolution holds that unique, kind of primal, fascination for all of us because it’s portraying events that we’ve always got in the back of our mind: That technology is almost literally the wire that holds our tenuous society together. What would happen if the technology disappeared? It’s a way of kind of facing our fears of mass death and destruction without actually having to face them. Which is inherently fascinating.”

O’Bannon, who has worked on several shows over the years that dealt with a dystopian future, jokes, “Zombies and alien invaders is my life, it’s put my kids through school.” But he and Steven Spielberg also created the NBC series SeaQuest DSV, which took a much more positive view of the future. “We were trying to portray the world 25 years [in the future], the world our children would inherit,” he says. “We didn’t want to give them a nihilistic, Terminator/Road Warrior view of the future. But ultimately it didn’t do well. It lacked the primal magnetism of a show like Revolution, that added level of, ‘How would I survive that?'”

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