We have now watched rather a lot of Dystopian shows. Sometimes dystopians where the whole world is being destroyed and now lives in terrible straits. Sometimes it’s dystopia in a microcosms where the world is ending… but only for specific people behind a fence/wall/whatever.
And there’s one question we have to keep asking - how did these people function in the world?
I mean, I get it, they’re in a terrible, scary situation… but they start panicking within literal hours! Look, I know humans are inclined to panicked over-reaction - but there’s a number of times we have people losing their shit in utter terror on these shows when barely any time has passed, people making terrible, soul wrenching choices… they really don’t have to make yet and folks suffering under terrible privation when their store cupboards should still be quite full.
Here we have the fast forward dystopia, the end of the world in 16x speed. Letting us get past all that pesky development, world building and slowly dawning tension and horror with people grasping their new reality; so we can get right to the nitty gritty of showing young girls the flowers and having to decide who dies so you can preserve your girl scout cookie stash.
After watching many dystopian shows in which the key element is humanity trapped or cut off from the rest of civilization (please stop making these btw), the one thing necessary for these shows to work is a sense of panic. The quickest way to achieve that, of course, is shortages of basic life sustaining items like food, water, or medicine. Here’s the thing, even the smallest towns these days have a Walmart, drug store, hospital; shit even walk in clinic and yet somehow, people are cut off from the rest of civilization are dying of starvation two days later. Yes, I’m looking directly at you Between.
What makes Between particularly bad in this area is the starving baby and the fact that all of the adult population has died off. This means that supplies can go even further because a significant percentage of the population is DEAD. Well, you wouldn’t know this from watching Between because the kids begin to go hungry almost immediately. Jason is the only infant in the town and somehow they don’t have any formula. Who the hell consumed the formula if there’s only one infant? And no, the formula didn’t go bad because formula has a shelf life of at least six months and Jason is one baby and it hasn’t been six months since they’ve been trapped in Pretty Lake. Sure, I know a starving baby adds to the drama but if they cannot even do it in a believable fashion, then why the hell do it? In fact, I think that we should just can the entire idea of starving isolated people as plot advancement until the characters are stuck for at least a couple of months. Most towns could withstand that (even without an entire dairy herd to slaughter). Hell, how many people have a couple of months food in their larders alone?
Then we have Under the Dome, which almost immediately jumped from “hey we’re trapped” to “let’s have underground fighting rings!” Let’s not forget that within the Dome were FARMS. Yes FARMS, and still somehow survival was only possible because one character started hoarding. If anything, Under the Dome is even worse than Between, because they had so many more supplies on hand which, while not allowing the gluttonous wasteful food fiesta that we enjoy today, would not have left the characters so desperate at the drop of hat as portrayed. Clearly, the authors didn’t think that dropping a Dome down on a town of unsuspecting people provided enough of a mystery and or plot point so they went with starving people, who shouldn’t even have been hungry.
Containment continues the theme - we need desperate food drops and criminal gangs barricading the local corner shop because, despite a huge segment of the population dying, again there’s no food. They’re not trapped in for months - they’re not even trapped for a month, yet you’d think they’d been desperately confined for years with nothing but bread, water and poutine to live on.
It’s not only shortages that lead to simply odd behaviour. On Revolution, the power suddenly goes out which means no INTERNET people. Why, whatever did people do before the internet? Well, the answer is an agrarian society folks. Without all of the modern conveniences of Internet, electricity, ATM’s, people on Revolution packed up their shit and headed for Beverly right quick. They packed anything valuable and they immediately started hoarding food. They don’t even wait for the government to attempt to create some kind of order, they pack up their shit and move to the nearest farmland that they can find. Do these people even realise how long it takes for canned food to bad? They had months before they had to worry about getting to farmland for survival and yet it only took Julia six weeks to suggest to Neville that they should leave the city. No one even stopped to think about whether or not farmer Brown wanted their company, even if they could sing B-I-N-G-O. It’s a ridiculous over reaction to show immediate conflict in the story. Look, losing all electricity forever is ridiculous but an entire population shifting out of urban areas rapidly after losing said power is even more ridiculous. I can’t imagine the traffic jams everytime a fuse burns out! I don’t recall anyone in the great northeast blackout of 2003 running for the nearest farm. Sure, we whined about no air conditioning and having to bbq all the meat as quickly as possibly, but it’s funny how in the real world, people were fine just waiting for the power to come back on. We were even happy to be able to see the stars for a little while.
If the people of Revolution overreacted, it’s nothing compared to the plagued of Containment. People had barely begun coughing before we had people screaming about conspiracy CDC and seeing quarantine as some sinister plot. Personally, with my low opinion of humanity, I think most folks outside the cordon would be demanding the whole neighbourhood be fenced off - if not carpet bombed.
What both shortages and panic lead to, of course, are the difficult choices.
One of the most gloriously tense, awful moments in any post-apocalyptic world is The Choices. We all know the choices: it’s Carol asking Lizzie to “Look at the Flowers” on The Walking Dead. It’s Kate fighting with the resistance despite her husband’s position on Colony. It’s the whole descent of Rick over the Walking Dead’s arc and the whole rise of figures like The Governor. This is one of the most iconic and constant battles we have in these genres - what will you do to survive? What will you become? How civilised can you remain when civilisation itself is gone. It’s one of those things that makes Telltale Games’s Walking Dead series so compelling to play - do you leave this person behind? Who do you trust? Do you steal the food?
In many ways, these choices are the underpinning foundation of all the tension in the genre, not how nasty the zombies/vampires/plague is, not the fear, not even which Black person will be eaten with laser-like focus on The Walking Dead. It is the tension of these choices
And the fast forwarded dystopian - it wants a piece of that soul searching action! But without the patient foundation of world building this makes so little sense. Take Fear the Walking Dead and their conflict around Chris. Chris thinks they have to kill people to survive. He repeatedly tells his dad, Travis, that they’re in a new world, one that requires them to be ruthless and lethal to protect themselves against bad people and to take what they need to survive… but… why? Why does he think that? Chris hasn’t had the experiences in the two short seasons of Fear the Walking Dead to justify these moral conflicts. Carol didn’t enter The Walking Dead ready to shoot small children in the head and ready to take down small armies all by herself. She journeyed, she lost her daughter and saw her come back a zombie, she survived the Governor and the destruction of the prison - Carol walked through fire of horrendous experience after horrendous experience to finally forge her into a weapon who is amazing to have on your side - unless you have a case of the sniffles. Carol, in all her terrifying glory, works because she was made and we saw that.
Chris doesn’t work because he came out of the box skipping the moral conflict and foundation to make him more.
This is one of the most glaring examples - but Under the Dome - after a few short weeks literally has Big Jim and Rebecca willing to unleash a plague on the residents in the name of “difficult decisions” - brought on by the fake shortages we’ve already mentioned. The people are not - cannot - be desperate enough to make this decision justifiable or understandable. Instead of seeing the excellent tension and even moral descent of people driven to terrible acts by impossible odds which The Walking Dead and even Colony do quite well, we see people who are ready to resort to genocide and biological warfare after a week without fresh doughnuts.
So, watching these shows, we wonder again how do they get through daily life? If the local store runs out of diet soda do they feel the need to stockpile huge warehouses of food and water and shank the neighbour lady if she dares to look at that last box of cheerios? If the power goes out for an hour do they think civilisation has ended and they better start shooting the neighbours to reduce the competition (actually we’ve reviewed a dystopian book where the answer appears to be “yes, yes they do”. No, really, they do.).
I get it, it’s fun to run to the dramatic tension and the main plot. This is why Urban Fantasy books often have apparent real-world people rather credulously accept the existence of weremooses and sparkly vampires with nary a second of mental brain crunching. But any plot can be ruined without its foundation and these fast-forward plot lines will leave even the most emotional, well crafted story shaking and rickety.