The problem with most reality shows is not that they’re populated by idiots, it’s that the formula requires them to be idiots. People always complain that the characters in horror movies are morons who wander off in the middle of the night to get slaughtered by masked killers. Of course, if the characters were smart, locked their doors and survived until some highly competent police officers showed up, we wouldn’t have much of a horror movie. By the same token, if MTV’s “The Real World” was staffed by sober, sane and sexually responsible individuals, you wouldn’t currently be watching Season 22.
So, in some respects, there’s reason to celebrate the arrival of Discovery Channel’s new show “The Colony.” For starters, it has less to do with “vote somebody off each week” competitions like “Survivor” and more in common with ongoing social experiments like PBS’ “Frontier House.” Instead of “Frontier House,” though, we get “Postapocalyptic House.”
The premise is this: The Earth has been devastated by a viral plague or some other ill-defined catastrophe and 10 ordinary people are trapped in a warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, fighting for daily survival. Unlike the usual coterie of boozers and bikini-clad skanks, this reality show is made up of sharp and situationally appropriate people. We’ve got engineers, nurses, carpenters, hunters—just the sort of broad cross-section of humanity you’d want to ride out the end of the world with. And their base of operations—that crumbling L.A. warehouse—is chockablock with all the basic survival needs. Gotta clean some dirty rainwater for drinking? How about using those conveniently placed plastic barrels and that pile of charcoal as a filtration system?
“The Colony” is good at giving some basic science lessons and employing the skills of its carefully assembled cast members. Building water filters, battery-powered lights, a functional generator: These are just some of our faux survivors’ daily tasks. Of course, there are a few raised-voice sessions as the cast members argue over the best course of action; but for the most part, interpersonal drama is kept to a minimum.
The oddest element of “The Colony” is its patently artificial setting. Obviously, no global catastrophe has actually occurred. None of these folks has lost family members to nuclear hellfire. L.A. is not a smoldering wasteland (no more so than usual, anyway). Hell, there’s probably a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts not five blocks from the warehouse. And yet these people all seem to be taking it very seriously. Amid all the playacting, it’s hard to tell how far these survivors are willing to take things. When various Mad Max-style “marauders” show up on motorcycles threatening to steal dwindling food supplies, the cast members appear ready, willing and able to kill in order to protect what’s theirs. Simmer down, folks, that’s some poor, underemployed movie extra, not Lord Humungus.
If you can get over the make-believe premise and staged crises, “The Colony” is a semi-smart twist on the standard reality show formula. Give the cast members the means to distill their own alcohol and enough supplies to construct a wood-fired hot tub, and it’d be perfect.