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MPAA Rating
October 26, 2009
Paul Asay
Disastrous Documentaries

Disastrous Documentaries

Note to readers:

On Oct. 23, 2009, a well-meaning but naive Plugged In writer settled in to watch some prerecorded "educational" cable programming—what viewers would likely see on such networks as The History Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

We haven’t seen him since.

He sometimes comes in late, so it might not be as dire as all that. But still, those of us who remain at Plugged In can only surmise that he succumbed, in some inexplicable, mysterious manner, to prolonged exposure to dour, depressing, dangerously sensationalistic … documentaries.

The only trace of him were his notes, which he’d posted onto our in-house FTP. They are barely comprehensible at times, appearing to be the last, desperate musings of a man who, it appears, was slowly slipping into a post-apocalyptic fever dream.

In honor of his memory (unless, of course, he shows up again, in which case he’d better have a good reason for being late) we reprint his notes here in their entirety (edited only for grammar, spelling, punctuation, clarity, orthodoxy, style—and to excise deranged and derogatory remarks about his editor).

October 23, 2009
Is it just me, or does everything seem fairly dark and depressing these days? The economy’s still struggling. Southwestern Asia is perpetually in chaos. The Middle East is still the Middle East. We all seem to be feeling just a little … anxious.

Sure glad I got this assignment to turn on the TV and escape it all, at least for a bit, into the recesses of history. I love history: I’m one of those wonkish types who reads about the Russian Revolution before I go to sleep. It’s nice to know that The History Channel feels the same way about the ancient Carthaginians and the Battle of the Bulge that I do. …

What’s this? The Nostradamus Effect? I’ve heard of that guy. He lived in the 1500s and made a bunch of cryptic predictions that some folks believe still hold water today. Sounds like claptrap to me, but I guess if people have spent enough money to put it all together for cable TV, it must be verifiable and scientific. (Somebody’d sue ’em if it wasn’t, right?) Maybe Nostradamus really did have some predictions for our times. I’ll watch for just a few minutes …

Well, that was depressing. Floods. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Fire. Nuclear explosions. And it’s odd, now that I look at the TV guide, that The History Channel has so much about Nostradamus. Here’s Nostradamus: 2012. Oh, and there’s a special called The Lost Book of Nostradamus. And here’s Nostradamus’ Final Prophesy: Jon and Kate Shall Bear Eight. No, wait, that’s a misprint. Still, I’m seeing a whole lot of air time getting devoted to a guy who, as far as I know, never ran a single country.

He must really pull in the ratings. … At least the whole channel isn’t devoted to fantastical doom and gloom forecasts. See, there’s a show called Mega Disasters. And here’s Life After People. And there’s …

October 24, 2009
Feeling kind of alone today. Nobody’s come in to check on me in this little closet they call a TV workroom for quite some time. Ugh. It’s after midnight. Am I the only one in the world who’s feeling a little bothered by the idea that the world might end on Dec. 21, 2012?

Didn’t I run across a quote recently from the Detroit Free Press about this? Here it is: Mike Duffy called this stuff "cheesy Chicken Little infotainment."

Oh, cool. Kevin McDonough from United Media might make a good friend. "The History Channel has gone off the deep end," he wrote. "Speculative mountebanks spouting apocalypse theories have been given endless airtime. When did The History Channel become the end-of-the-world channel?"

Maybe I should call him and chat about it. It’d probably make me feel better. Him too. No. It’s 3 a.m. Better not wake him up. He might think it’s a secret signal to pack up and get out of town as quick as he can …

I’m definitely going to switch channels today. Discovery Channel sounds like a good option, what with its emphasis on hard-core science and technology and all. Surely MythBusters has done a segment on how the world won’t really dissolve into a tiny smoking ribbon of antimatter anytime soon.

Hey, this looks interesting … Raging Planet. It’s probably about the political protests staged in South Africa in the 1950s.

Wait a minute. This isn’t about Nelson Mandela! This is about more natural disasters like volcanoes and tsunamis and fires and earthquakes and … didn’t I already see a show about utter and total global destruction? Was I just imagining it?

I can’t watch this in the state I’m in! I should watch Destroyed in Seconds instead, since it’s probably an exposé on 401(k) financial plans … surely there wouldn’t be another show that focused on natural disasters …

Hmmm. I guess I’ll switch to The Colony. That’s a reality show. So it’s gotta be pretty unreal, silly even. That’ll cheer me up.

Oh. It’s about a group of people trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world …

Maybe I’ll just turn off the television and curl up in a fetal position for a while. I wonder why nobody came in to work today? Hello? Is anybody out there?

October 25, 2009
I’m feeling pretty clear-headed today. It seems to me as though TV channels that, in years past, were more tightly focused on their respective missions—history, science, nature—have developed a preoccupation with disaster. You just can’t get away from it. And this can mean only one thing:

The end is indeed near.

OK, maybe it doesn’t necessarily mean that. But the fact that these documentaries are so omnipresent on the cable dial suggests that people are tuning in to watch them. And that, in turn, suggests some pretty interesting things about both us and the media that cater to our whims.

A preoccupation with these cataclysmic, end-of-the-world docs isn’t all bad. We’re curious beings and we don’t have nine lives, so we often contemplate how everything will play out. Anyone who reads the Bible knows that the earliest Christians were very curious about what the future might hold. Lengthy books within the Scriptures, such as Daniel, Ezekiel and, of course, Revelation, are filled with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic word pictures designed to give readers a glimpse—sometimes tantalizing, sometimes terrifying—into what’s in store for us and our planet. We are, in some ways, encouraged to think about such things.

There are other positives, too. Shows about natural disasters often inject real science in dramatic ways: We learn about the turbulent inner workings of our planet as we watch shows about volcanoes, or dramatic weather patterns through programs on hurricanes. Sometimes, we can even learn how to better safeguard ourselves through these shows … though the fact that the dramatic footage we see had to be taped by someone crazy enough to brave the very elements we’re supposed to avoid can blunt that lesson.

But we must also acknowledge that these shows, at their worst, can foster an unhealthy preoccupation with death, disaster and—certainly in the case of Nostradamus—the occult. They feed on the same impulse that causes us to rubberneck when we see a wreck on the side of the road. We are attracted to the horrific.

Shows like this cater to an innate desire we seem to have to witness spectacular tragedy. And it’s important to remember that seeing such tragedies onscreen—be they imagined or frame-by-frame recitations—can desensitize us to the real pain and horror of those events.

This isn’t to say that if a tornado struck my neighborhood, I’d somehow be unfazed after a steady diet of The History Channel. But it does mean that when a tornado strikes a neighboring town I might be just a tad less sympathetic. After all, I’ve seen that destruction repeated over and over … for days now.

So, not wanting to further desensitize myself, I’ve decided to limit my cable viewing to Animal Planet—a channel filled with cute little dogs and kitties and bunny rabbits and … unicorns. I’m sure Monsters Inside Me is a nice, practical show about Doberman pinschers who are gently trained to subdue their baser instincts and help elderly ladies cross busy city intersections.

I wonder why at least the cleaning staff didn’t come to collect the trash last night. Hey, why is this door locked? Hello? Hello!?