I always wonder why more episodes of survivalist reality series Doomsday Preppers aren’t about free, widespread first-aid and health-care education. Stockpile your canned goods all you want, but you better hope someone around knows how to pop a dislocated shoulder back in, triage a head injury, or keep a wound clean. Growing a garden takes some real devotion, and as some of us were taught in nursery school, many hands make light work. When the end-times start, are we really going to run around shooting each other? Or if we had enough food and shelter and kindness, wouldn’t there be enough to go around, and wouldn’t we not feel the need to shoot each other? I’d like to have a gentle apocalypse, please.
But the end-times stories, the pandemics and plagues and isolation stories TV has right now, are not about a resigned return to the simple earth. They’re about how monstrous and violent and despicable we are, and how tenuously we maintain civil society. The Walking Dead has a pretty grim assessment of humanity, and how quickly we’ll turn on those closet to us, how easily we’ll become hardened, and how systematic we’ll be about cannibalism. The Last Man on Earth has no struggle with scarcity at all — there are plenty of resources for the survivors — yet the show consists of a group of people who fundamentally loathe some members, and who maintain worthless gender politics. The 100 depicts profound tribalism and several massacres, as if future societies were completely unfamiliar with the idea of two heads being better than one. (Let’s make the planet stop being poison together!) We know that throughout human history, even amid the starkest of suffering, people created art and sought comfort and found ways to ritualize joy. But you’d never know it from our doomsday TV shows, which are far more inclined to show us improvised weapons than an improvised instrument.
Netflix’s new series Between, a joint project between the streaming service and Canadian broadcaster City, has a similar outlook: Everyone’s a big stinky jerk, and when the Badness starts, everyone gets worse. I’m not saying the human race isn’t full of true garbage humans, but does every story have to be about them? Can’t one favorite high-school math teacher also survive, and remind everyone about the value of hard work? Between’s spin on the genre is that its plague — or whatever it is — only affects people over the age of 21. So far, it’s only killing off old people in one small town (“Pretty Lake,” oy), which brings on the quarantine. And as with Under the Dome, things go haywire pretty fast. Netflix only made the first episode available for review, but just in the pilot, there’s gunfire and violence. Are we really this prone to chaos? Even in Canada?
The dialogue on Between is horrendous, and the performances are not much better. “You and your conspiracy theories!” chides a mom. “You remind me of your father!” In case you didn’t catch how ominous that was, her mouth immediately fills with blood — I think it’s blood, at least — and she collapses to the floor, dead. How do you like them conspiracy theories, mom? Our heroine is Wiley (iCarly and Sam & Cat’s Jennette McCurdy), a surly teen mom and the daughter of a local preacher. You can tell how badass she is because she sasses a stained-window depiction of Jesus. Man, watch out, Juno, there’s a new pregnant teenager with ‘tude. Adam (Jesse Carere) has an uncle who works in some kind of public-health lab, and Adam openly admits to monitoring his emails and phone calls. Gord (Ryan Allen) wants to join the Army. But before he can, all these older people start dying, and suddenly their town of 8,000 has lost 2,000 residents. This should feel propulsive, but the pilot barely lurches along. Netflix is releasing one episode a week, in a traditional broadcast model, which seems especially ill-suited to a show with so little momentum.
Science fiction is one way we have of depicting and metabolizing current cultural fears. The Twilight Zone isn’t about martians, it’s about the second Red Scare; Battlestar Galactica isn’t about space, it’s about the War on Terror and the normalization of torture in American warfare. Dawn of the Dead isn’t just zombie horror, it’s a critique of consumerism. Castaway or isolation fiction — Lord of the Flies, Lost — is most interesting when that alien environment reveals something about the true nature of its current inhabitants, a true nature their ordinary society perhaps discourages. So it’s extra frustrating that our current crop of dystopian shows seems so incapable of positing any big ideas, of even raising big questions.
Between’s not obligated to be political, certainly, and maybe if the show were more interesting and energetic, this wouldn’t seem so galling. (That’s why I mostly give a pass to The 100: It’s lively enough to get away without some grand thesis.) But we — big We, everybody We — could really use some shows that help critique and recontextualize whatever its creators perceive as contemporary widespread fears. I’m not so much afraid of doomsday as I am of doomsday preppers whose models rely on bunkers and scarcity rather than communal survival. And of course my biggest fear — of having to watch even more shows that have nothing to say.