You don’t need Mayans or even R.E.M. to tell you it’s the end of the world as we know it.
Just look at the recent string of natural disasters, economic breakdowns or if your candidate lost the election Tuesday.
It’s making some people dig backyard bunkers like they haven’t since the Cold War, stock food as if the supermarkets weren’t and build up arsenals worthy of a small private army.
And it’s helped make “Doomsday Preppers,” which depicts all of these activities, the top-rated program on the National Geographic Channel.
As the show embarks on its second season, “Doomsday Preppers” has become a hit in part because of the paranoia and survivalist instincts it conjures, a popular theme it shares with scripted hits such as “The Walking Dead” and “Revolution.”
“Preppers” also succeeds because National Geographic can have it both ways, providing its dire and extreme predictions for one audience while endlessly amusing skeptics with an array of colorful characters sporting gas masks and armed with Super Soakers full of homemade pepper spray. The kind of folks who are often compelled to begin their interviews by declaring, “I am not a nut.”
The title for the new season’s first episode, in fact, is “Am I Nuts or Are You?” It features an obese Nashville music producer who is preparing to enhance his underground bunker with an even more protective old fuel tank. Whatever his nuclear fallout survival techniques, “I am not going to drink my own urine,” Big Al assures the camera crew.
This differentiates him from Robert Earl, who moved to the Texas high desert to avoid rising ocean levels. He’s self-fertilizing what he calls his “poop garden.”
The humorous aspects of “Preppers” have been vigorously promoted by the network, which was once known for travelogues and nature films. Stephen Colbert has called it one of his favorite shows. It’s also been endorsed by Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games,” which you could classify as a (wholly fictional) prepper film. Posters for “Preppers” remake images of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” with gas masks.
And some of the scenes in the show seem staged for laughs, such as one of a paperboy who tosses a paper onto a perfectly manicured driveway in suburban Clarke County, Va., only to face a small militia of neighbors with automatic weaponry.
But it’s always serious business for the people depicted — even the couple in Mishawaka, Ind., trying to fund their stockpiling by selling sex toys.
With ominous music and a breathy, deadly serious narrator, “Preppers” spends much of its time fanning the perceived threat even as the subjects beef up their stockpiles and organize drills.
At the end of each segment, a team of experts from a North Carolina company called Practical Preppers gives a score on how ready the subject is, along with how many days his or her supplies could reasonably last. The assessment is followed by the kicker: a disclaimer that whatever fear the preppers are furiously preparing against is usually incredibly remote.
Why not save the audience — and the subject — by just saying that right up front?
“That’s certainly not our intention at all, to make anyone in the show look foolish and say these [events] could never happen,” producer Matt Sharp says.
Citing a figure that there are 3 million preppers in the country, he raises the possibility that there might be one in your own house: “If you’ve ever put water in your basement, if you ever saved $1,000 in your checking account for a rainy day, that’s a form of prepping.”
The people on the show, Sharp says, “are obviously taking that to the next level.”
For Jay Blevins, a former member of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office who moved to Berryville, Va., preparing his home, amassing weaponry and organizing neighbors are his ways to stave off the possibility of social unrest resulting from an economic collapse. He has seen the potential for chaos as police departments in various towns have been forced to close because of budget problems. A more vivid and recent example was the looting that was reported after the storm damage and flooding in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.
“Some would call us extreme. That’s fine. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” says Blevins, who spends his days as a business consultant in Fairfax County and will be featured in the Nov. 20 episode of “Doomsday Preppers.”
“I want to be prepared for everything. When the hurricane was coming, I was set,” he says. “I would have turned on the generator. Everything was there if I needed it. I was prepared for the worst.”
Blevins is pictured in the series as not only frightening the paperboy, but also organizing like-minded neighbors, seeing how fast a first floor can be boarded up (in order to repel intruders) and, most spectacularly, mixing up homegrown pepper spray and testing it on his hapless teammates using a Super Soaker.
“Yeah, that didn’t work out,” he says of what he calls the “water guns of death and fire.” “It was something we hadn’t tried before.”
For some, such as the Southwick family of West Jordan, Utah, prepping is a family affair.
Braxton Southwick, a mechanic at Toyota, drills family members and prepares them for what he says he believes may be a chemical attack involving smallpox.
“Sometimes I think he just goes a bit overboard,” says his wife, Kara Southwick. “But I decided to humor him.”
The family of eight goes along with the drills, too, considering it more of a hobby, even when they don their gas masks.
“I still have normal friends and have a totally normal life,” says Braxton Southwick Jr., whose family is featured in Tuesday’s season premiere. “I do tell them about my prepping and everything, and I kind of make it out not to be crazy. I make it out more to be smart because I feel like it really is. You always want to have a plan and not need it instead of need a plan and not have it.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
(One hour) Tuesday at 10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel