I’ll admit it: I’m one of those people who sees the appeal of the end of the world. Perhaps not in the literal civilizational sense, though I can certainly see the pull of that too. The modern world is loud, dizzying, and pernicious in ways that defy comprehension. Steven Pinker may be right about modernity having generally led us to more peace and better health in most places on the planet, but something has to be said about how bad modernity feels a lot of the time. The appeal I’m talking about doesn’t relate to the societal, but the personal. One’s life is the sum of a million choices, some you make, most you don’t. And sometimes you just wake up wishing for a second chance to do it all over again.
Surviving Y2K, the documentarian Dan Taberski’s follow-up to Missing Richard Simmons (both released under a new anthology banner, Headlong), is a soulful exploration of that apocalyptic dreaming. Funny, poetic, and wonderfully written, it’s best described as a series of moving human portraits disguised as a conventional “what really happened here?” podcast. It’s also one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard all year.
The mystery of the Y2K bug constitutes the engine of Taberski’s sophomore quest. In the lead-up to the new millennium, the world came to believe that a widely proliferated computer bug, born out of a failure in foresight, threatened to take down the modern world’s critical infrastructures and lead to civilization’s collapse. Of course, as clocks hit midnight across the globe on December 31, 1999, that didn’t happen. The world didn’t end. But why?
Half of Surviving Y2K is dedicated to examining that question. In a moment rich with true-crime podcasts triggered by cold cases, a long-dead computer bug makes for a peculiar, ethically uncomplicated corpse. Taberski and producer Henry Molofsky do all right with the gumshoe stuff, spotlighting a few truly interesting characters that embody differing views on what actually happened: Some believed the bug was a scam and never existed, others believed this was an example of a crisis averted through collective action. In the end, we aren’t left with definitive answers, only competing theories that give us two visions of the world. Both are equally dark in their own ways: If you were to squint, you could see a connection between Surviving Y2K and The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis’s recently published ode to government bureaucracies. On an investigative level, both works illustrate the surprising fragility of the systems that make up human civilization, and both projects do well in giving the impression that it’s a miracle society has held itself together for this long.
As above, so below. By the conclusion of Surviving Y2K, you’ll extend that same analysis down to the level of individual experience: It’s a miracle that we, as individuals, aren’t worse messes. That’s because the other half of the podcast focuses its attention on how different people reacted to the possibility of the world ending. This is where Taberski is significantly more effective, and the point at which Surviving Y2K rises above a mere eschatological documentary. Where the bones of the podcast is an intellectual inquiry, its true meat lies in its well-crafted vignettes about what people did when they thought the world might possibly end. To these individuals, the end of the world presented opportunity — perhaps salvation from a life that didn’t quite work out the way they thought it would — so they embraced it, and in some cases, they sought to bring it on themselves. In truth, Surviving Y2K isn’t just a story about the end of the world. It’s also a story about the end of many personal worlds.
That description might sound depressing, but the sum of all these parts is actually quite healing. The narrative, which plays out over six chapters, is structured chronologically, with the climactic millennium turnover itself pegged to the fourth episode. As we move closer to the climax, the podcast conjures a sense of various narrative threads coming together to collectively meet the historic occasion. Space and time is collapsed as we’re taken to several stories playing out in several places at once: the end of a political era in Russia; a pseudo-race to deliver the first baby of the millennium in Utah; a hostage situation in Kansas. For a moment, Taberski’s interweaving narratives mesh into a collage of humanity as a single, chaotic, clustered organism, vibrating in anticipation of the new millennium. Everyone is united by a cosmic thing that’s happening to them.
All of this is bolstered by the fact that Taberski is a fantastic writer and an even better narrator, with an ear for dry wit and an eye for precious detail. “As I leave that party I was at, in that club on 57th Street, the only sign of disaster is some smoke in the air — just the ghost of fireworks — and the odd, abandoned Nine West shoe in the gutter,” he narrates at one point in the fifth episode. It’s a great moment, but what can’t be conveyed in these sentences is the tone: a complex blend of exhaustion and disappointment, delivered with retrospective knowing.
Taberski himself is a vignette character in Surviving Y2K. Like the once-lost souls he’s documented, Taberski was a person who looked forward to the world potentially ending in the year 2000. The reason for this is something of a reveal within the flow of the podcast, so I won’t take away the punch of it. But know that it’s an emotional one, and Taberski’s story coats everything else with rich layer of empathy.
That presence of a centralizing personal narrative echoes Taberski’s approach in Missing Richard Simmons, which during its run last year was knocked as overly invasive of its subject, Richard Simmons, who is a public figure and with whom Taberski arguably had a personal relationship. (“Arguably” being the operative word and the emotional through-line of that series.) Surviving Y2K doesn’t carry that kind of tricky baggage, instead functioning as a more straightforward documentary that fully benefits from the pathos of Taberski’s personal narrative. What wonder it is to have an uncomplicated emotional experience for once.
As we now know, and as we are reminded at the very top of the podcast, the world didn’t end on January 1, 2000. Modern society carries on, though its collapse might still yet come, even if it won’t be attached to a cool date. Same goes, it seems, for the lives of Taberski and the apocalypse-seeking people, some of whom have torn down their lives in anticipation of what comes next. The sixth and final episode plays as an extended denouement to the rebuilding that comes after. Here, the podcast digs deep into a profound truth: The end of the world doesn’t truly end the old world. Even with second chances, you carry the weight of everything that came before.