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TV Tonight: The Colony

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The first thing a TV critic notices watching the post-apocalyptic-scenario reality show The Colony (debuts tonight on Discovery) is how little use there is for TV criticism in a postapocalyptic scenario. The series, which throws together 10 people to survive holed up in a warehouse after a simulated epidemic has destroyed civilization, chooses a group of people whose skills and knowledge would have special use in this Road Warrior world. There are engineers, a nurse, a machinist, a handyman, a doctor.

The rest of us? Well, our soft, little-used muscles would probably make tender eating. 

There is no actual cannibalism in The Colony, only the cannibalism of pop-cultural tropes. The series fits into a vogue for apocalyptic stories, lately represented by Jericho, 2012, Knowing, upcoming TV series like Day One and the Cormac McCarthy novel and upcoming movie The Road. It draws on (and references) recent news fears: “We are on the edge of a global catastrophic disaster,” it begins. “Human conflict, nuclear bombs, natural disasters, chemical and biological warfare. Without warning, the world as we know it can come to an end.” Thanks for the reminder!

It also draws on an old strain of reality-TV entertainment: it’s sort of Survivor, but stripped of the metaphor, the Tribal Council, and the bikini-friendly tropical settings. 

In The Colony’s scenario, the group is stuck without water or electricity in an 80,000-foot Los Angeles warehouse. They hunker down inside; gangs (played by actors) roam outside and threaten to steal their resources. They are allowed to scavenge supplies from an abandoned department store, then have some of the supplies stolen in turn. And they’re immediately left to figure out problems like how to purify water (filter through sand and charcoal, then boil) and how to force a toilet to flush.

The show comes from producer Thom Beers, who made the hit Deadliest Catch for Discovery. This show, unlike Catch and other Beers working-man shows, doesn’t have an element of competition between different crews; it’s also more inherently contrived. But like Beers’ other shows, it combines a fascination with people struggling to get by with their hands with a focus on the emotional stress of the situation.

Of course, The Colony can’t really reproduce the strain of surviving the end of the world. Its subjects haven’t actually seen most of their loved ones die; they know they will return to a functioning society; we know (and a title card reminds us at the end) that experts are standing by to help them if they meet any actual danger. Still, the show is loaded with interviews with psychologists and homeland-security experts to remind us of the theoretical stakes. 

To help simulate the stress of the experience, the participants start off by being sleep-deprived for 30 hours. Then cabin fever—plus deprivation from coffee, cigarettes, booze and other comforts—kicks in. Many reality shows—say, Big Brother—give participants alcohol and other indulgences to get them to act out. The Colony tries to accomplish this by taking things away. 

It works, in a way. Tempers flare, and when the producers introduce conflicts—like whether to trust four people who come by the warehouse looking for help—emotions boil over as if there were real stakes. Whether the producers have created a convincing illusion of danger, or whether its the natural intoxicant of reality-TV cameras, the Colonists squabble, cry and thump their chests as if they were in an actual life-and-death scenario. 

They’re not, of course, and so the show can never quite escape the sense of playacting. When one Colonist says, philosophically, “Being sad about what’s around us or what we used to have is not going to bring light into what the future holds,” the sentiment may be honest (if ungrammatical), but the fact is, we know they have no apocalypse to be sad about. When another, a contractor in real life, says, “There’s a lot of things you’ve got to let go of, as far as a moral compass goes”—well, hell, doesn’t every Rock of Love contestant say that too? 

And yet The Colony is still grimly engrossing. Unlike many reality series (but like Deadliest Catch et al.) there is no attempt to pretty up the surroundings—just the opposite. It may be an illusion, but it’s one you can pretty easily lose yourself in, with just a little imagination. It would be foolish to pretend that The Colony offers answers as to how well ten average people would survive a disaster (they would not be lucky enough to be picked by casting agents) or how practically or morally it’s best to survive (who can really say what these ten people would do in an actual postapocalypse?). In the first two episodes, it suggests a postapocalypse less idealistic than, say, Red Dawn, but less ghoulishly barbaric than The Road. Who’s to say if it’s right? 

But if you’re even the slightest bit of a worrywart by nature, the questions the show raises—and the matter-of-fact, hands-on way it deals with the practical survival details—are enough to make for a more thought-provoking hour than your average episode of The Bachelor. The Colony may be phony, but it’s often a convincing phoniness. And it may even make you feel grateful for having the luxury of wasting an hour on reality TV.