Why Doomsday Preppers Goes Too Far—and Why I Keep Watching Anyway

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 3 2012 11:35 AM

National Geographic’s Troubling, Addictive Show About Survivalists

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David Sarti in a scene from Doomsday Preppers

Photograph by Sharp Entertainment/National Geographic Channel

Reality TV loves excess. Bravo has exposed the too-lavish lives of privileged housewives in nearly every zip code; A&E documents those who keep too much stuff; MTV shows 20-somethings partying and drinking too much on their way to an inevitable rehab stint. And now National Geographic has a show all about people who are overly worried about the immediate future: Doomsday Preppers.

Doomsday Preppers is about those who think the apocalypse, in one form or another, is on the way—and soon. The apocalyptic fear varies from household to household; perhaps it is heralded by inflation, or maybe volcanic ash clouds. Whatever their particular concern, most on the show, as Neil Genzlinger noted in the New York Timeshave a penchant for stocking serious firepower.

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What Genzlinger did not note in his worried piece is what makes this show so watchable. Start with its brisk pace. Every episode documents several preppers, giving 15 minutes to each apocalyptic possbility. NatGeo’s “experts” (I add scare quotes because their credentials are never explained) weigh in on just how ready the preppers are for the given doomsday scenario. Then we learn the supposed odds of each scenario actually unfolding.

The show cleverly borrows from old VH1 standby Pop-Up Video, with little boxes appearing on screen that contradict the claims made by the preppers as they explain their fears—making it easy for viewers to dismiss the preppers as loons, and laugh at their foolishness. 

This is cruel, of course—but addictive. The show is genuinely funny, and as you watch someone shoot his thumb off while preparing for the end of days, it’s hard not to feel a little superior. (Especially if that same man has just given his eight-year-old son an AK-47.)

But when the laughter dies down, the guilt sets in. The show veers further into exploitation than I’m entirely comfortable with. Should National Geographic really just point their cameras at these people each week, rather than intervening and trying to educate them about, say, the genuine likelihood of the total destruction of the power grid?

That queasy feeling worsens when you start to notice how many of the people on Doomsday Preppers appear to suffer from real psychological problems, possibly rooted in personal trauma. Most of the principal “preppers” are veterans either of Vietnam or Iraq; Bronx-based firefighter Jason Charles, a 9/11 first responder, fears that a volcanic ash cloud could cover New York, and takes extreme measures to duct-tape and seal his whole house, wearing a gas mask as he runs to a food container.

Then there’s Tennessee prepper David Sarti, who, after his episode aired, had his guns seized by the state of Tennessee, which declared him “mentally defective.” During the episode he acknowledged that his health was failing (though he appeared to be referring to physical ailments; he huffed and puffed with every task). Cases like his give me pause: As a viewer, am I contributing to the exploitation of these earnest families?

And yet I keep tuning in. When you know a gruesome accident is unfolding, it can be hard to look away. The next episode is on tonight at 9. I’ll be watching.