The Harmful Rays of the Moral Vacuum

The Harmful Rays of the Moral Vacuum
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Friday, January 8, 2010

Television Review: Apocalypse Man

Have you ever wondered how you would survive in the event of the complete and total breakdown of societal order?  Curious as to where you'd find food, power, and information in the event of an apocalyptic event?  Has the History Channel got a show for you.

That show is Apocalypse Man, a grim crash course in survivalist skills taught by Rudy Reyes.  Reyes is a likeable if somewhat overly enthusiastic retired recon Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He went on to play himself in the HBO miniseries, Generation Kill.  Bonus for the ladies: Reyes is a bit of a beefcake.  His past profession is underscored by his constant use of military jargon.  Anything that compliments your own resources, says Reyes, is a force multiplier.

At the start of the program, the viewer is told that Reyes teaches skills for the sorts of catastrophic events that haven't happened yet.  But the official government standpoint is that they could happen.  The camera follows Reyes as he navigates a real world environment of abandoned buildings and streets where this apocalypse has supposedly already occurred. 

Reyes advises the viewer to head for a city center to scrounge for food and other resources.  He makes his way across disused railroad tracks, always moving quickly and avoiding roads and other main arteries.  Because, he says, people will likely resort to killing each other for scant resources.  You will have to engage in a calculus in a post apocalyptic world to decide which resources are worth carrying in your pack and which are best left behind.  It's a bit reminiscent of the videogame Fallout 3, in which the player attempts to survive in the remnants of a Washington, D.C. destroyed by nuclear attack.

In one particularly memorable scene, he tells the viewer that in the event of societal breakdown, martial law would be instituted and bridges to major cities would be raised or barricaded.  Crossing rivers would be ill advised because they would either be full of chemicals or sewage from abandoned water treatment plants.  So Reyes crosses an open draw bridge by making a grappling hook with a tire iron and some rope.  He tells the viewer that in such an event, you must "trust your skills."  Of course, most viewers are not Special Forces veterans, so no matter how much of a positive sense of self they have, they're likely to plunge into the irradiated soup below.

Reyes does have some neat tricks in his pack that are easier to replicate.  Did you know that if you press steel wool to a 9V battery, it serves as an extremely volatile source of kindling?  Just don't store the two together for obvious reasons, cautions Reyes.

Many of the real world examples Reyes cites about societal breakdown and survival in a disaster are drawn from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  But the abandoned city streets which Reyes runs through are portions of Detroit, a once proud city where miles and miles of blocks are left eerily abandoned.  Steven Malanga of City Journal, among others, has written about the phenomenon of feral houses, literally houses that have been reclaimed by nature.  The Sweet Juniper blog provides some spectacular pictures of such homes.

With Detroit as his ready made ground zero, Reyes explores such cool settings as abandoned hospitals, houses, gas stations, and libraries.  Reyes is an advocate for unflinchingly embracing the breakdown of society once the worst has happened.  It might be counter-intuitive to kick in a door and take supplies from a house, says Reyes, but it is no longer a home.  It's the key to your survival.

Ultimately, though, it is Reyes' sensitive side that makes him most compelling.  He tells a story about his time in POW training camp when he was forced to evade capture in the wilderness for a week.  It was the loneliness that really got to him.  When he was finally captured (and tortured) he took comfort in listening to the knocking of the man in the cell next to him.  Reyes says that in a post apocalyptic world, one of his first steps would be to find others and begin the rebuilding of society.  Left unanswered is the question as to whether he could trust them not to kill him for his resources.

While Apocalypse Man makes for entertaining viewing, one major problem is that the hypothetical scenario in which Reyes operates is too open ended.  He offers no explanation of what "happened" to wipe out society.  He does not account for very real problems one might encounter in a post apocalyptic world, such as crippling does of radiation or firestorms.

Another History Channel program, Life After People, is guilty of the same "cleanliness."  The show tells us what would happen if people simply vanished from the face of the earth leaving their buildings and other property behind.  But it does not tell us how such a thing could happen.

Still, Reyes offers a novel approach to a subject that has become otherwise trite lately.  The History Channel Shop offers DVD copies of the Reyes program, which it identifies as a pilot.  I hope it gets greenlighted for more episodes.

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