Why TV Apocalypses Are Really Wish-Fulfillment Fables

Why do Zombie shows have such powerful grip on our culture? Perhaps it could be that in order to live the kind of life we want, we have to destroy the world.

On a recent morning, my 5-year-old daughter, Claire, drew a picture of herself with an elaborate Princess Leia hairstyle, wearing a blue gown and riding in a large, wooden boat. The front of the boat was tricked out with cupholders for two icy beverages, both of which had little umbrellas in them. On the other side of the boat (next to another pair of drinks) sat Luke Skywalker, unrecognizable if not for the light saber on his belt and “Lewk” written above him with an arrow pointing to his head. In a bundle on the floor of the boat was a tiny, faceless baby with an arrow indicating this was actually Claire’s long-since-unswaddled 3-year-old sister, Ivy. For all the depicted touchstones of the artist’s passions and priorities (fanciness, refreshing beverages), the picture demonstrates a vehement disregard — a hostility, even — toward reality. Claire’s hair isn’t long enough to braid elaborately, she’s never met Luke Skywalker, her little sister is three feet tall now, and the one time Claire rode on a boat, she cried and begged to return to land. For her to be placed in the situation she’s depicted, something must have gone horribly wrong in the world. Mommy and Daddy are lost or dead, her little sister has regressed dramatically in the wake of a significant trauma, the globe is covered in water, and the only suitable mate is an orphan with anger issues, draped in visible weaponry.

But sometimes an apocalypse is required for the world to get in line with your fantasies. Which at least partially explains why so many apocalyptic tales these days seem to be driven by such heavy doses of wishful thinking. Take the sugary, armageddon-flavored nuggets of NBC’s new doomsday hit Revolution. Unlike the cautionary tales scripted by futuristic visionaries like George Orwell or JG Ballard, Revolution feels like a child’s clumsily drawn daydream, one that lands halfway between Dungeons and Dragons and Real Simple magazine. After all the lights go out across the globe (and batteries and gas-powered cars stop working, too, somewhat nonsensically), citizens abandon their gadget-driven, soulless existences to sharpen machetes, grow sustainable crops, and engage in mixed martial arts combat. Even the show’s CGI images of weed-strewn urban landscapes go from haunting to oddly soothing in a matter of seconds, as flocks of birds fly through the sky and serene agrarian societies spring up in the cul-de-sacs of suburban neighborhoods. 

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