I consider myself a reasonably upbeat, happy person. That’s not to say that I don’t have my moments of pessimism and skepticism (being a philosopher will do that to you), but on the whole, I think life is good. However, I’ve become addicted to a certain genre of storytelling on television, one which seems to go against everything I practice in real life. I love the grumpy stuff, the stuff that features stories of the end of the world and the downfall of humanity. If it’s post-apocalyptic, vampire-ridden, chock full of psychos, or besought by zombies, it’s for me. If it has a healthy dose of satire thrown in (because you really should be making light of things when reality is about to implode), even better.
I know I’m not alone in this simply because of the sheer number of shows being produced in this genre. It seems a lot (maybe most) of us like watching the proverbial brown stuff hit the fan. I’ve read theories from sociologists positing that such stuff becomes popular again when the economy takes a nosedive, or when there is social strife. In such cases, we like to project our collective angst onto characters who represent the bad in us- bloodsuckers, brain-eaters and other parasites. It allows us, even in the very worst of times, to think “Well, I’m out of work, I’m living on canned spaghetti, but at least I’m not being attacked by the undead.” Maybe it’s just good old-fashioned schadenfreude. It’s always more amusing when someone else finds radioactive waste in their back yard and grows an extra spleen.
Interesting theories, but I tend to think our love of such programs stems from something a little more profound. I propose that we’re fascinated by this brand of nastiness because it raises really, really good questions. Allow me to give some examples:
- If human beings blew up life as we know it, and we had to start over again, what would our new priorities be?
- Given how humans sometimes behave (even without being bitten by zombies or vampires), how can we distinguish between humans and monsters?
- What would we be willing to do in order to survive?
- Could we still find beauty, truth, and love in the midst of so much turmoil?
- In the face of Armageddon, could we finally get over our collective hang-ups about race, gender, age, etc.?
- What might the world be like without humans?
This list is just a drop in the bucket. There’s really nothing like getting the crap scared out of you, even if it’s just for an hour at a time, and even if it’s just pretend, to kick-start the philosophical part of one’s brain.
But what about the fact that I’m generally a happy person? How do I reconcile this with my love of TV shows that show the very worst of people and of life in general? Margaret Laurence once said that writing was itself an act of hope, and I tend to see philosophy in the same light. When I’ve stopped questioning things and decided it isn’t worth my while to dig for big ideas, well…you’ll need to check my pulse, in addition to my sense of optimism. Watching post-apocalyptic fare and finding philosophical nuggets may be my declaration that it’s never so bad that you can’t find room to ponder a bit. Hey, if someone’s going to eat my brain, they might as well find it filling.
Here’s to the end of the world as we know it, and to all the deep thoughts it may uncover.