Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Review of The Colony, Season 1

The Discovery Channel’s post-apocolyptic reality show is in the middle of its second season. I just finished the first.

The premise is compelling. A dozen highly-skilled engineers, mechanics and medical professionals are placed in a simulated disaster setting and expected to build what they need to survive.

The first season took place in an abandoned factory in downtown Los Angeles. The second is set in a small town devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The first step to enjoying the show is to stop worrying about “realism.” The colonists are given a perfect mix of raw materials and threatened by “gangs” that aren’t actually allowed to hurt them. In a real situation they would all be killed or enslaved in 48 hours.

But it’s not a zombie movie, it’s a stress test. It’s a social experiment designed to apply just enough pressure to keep everybody on their toes. The mauraders may be fake but the hunger, filth and dehydration are all quite real.

The show isn’t about torturing the volunteers. It’s about giving raw materials to a bunch of brilliant people and motivating them to build, watching them turn everyday objects into beds, showers, power sources and functional vehicles. It’s about the process of human invention.

Pampered products of the service economy will come away with a profound sense of helplessness and a profound respect for people who actually build things for a living.

The Colony shows us where our comforts come from. It peels away the layers of our modern society and teaches us how the components work. It really is an educational program, recommend for students of all ages, and for anyone who’s inclined to take modern comforts for granted.

Every fan of Atlas Shrugged should see this show. This is the real Galt’s Gulch, populated, not by moral supermen, but by ordinary people using knowledge and skill to improve their world. The finest minds in the building belong to a vegetarian peacenik who looks like Santa Claus and an epic level handyman with zero social skills.

In harsher conditions we might get a serious exploration of charity vs. self-interest but at this level it’s mostly just posturing. The social dynamics feel real enough — walking the line between annoyance and respect as the participants squabble, fight and second guess each other.

My favorite moment occurred early on as blue-collar handyman Michael squared off with engineers Vlad and John C. John C. and Vlad are authentic geniuses, while Michael is the penultimate example of the practical man who can get things done. The Colony needs all of them, but class distinctions get in the way. Michael feels he’s being dismissed because he doesn’t have a degree and goes on a rant about the arrogance of people with letters after their names.

The disdain is largely in his head, and he seems to get over it in later episodes, as shallow stereotypes are overcome by real respect. I paid particular attention to this moment because I think we’re going to see a lot more conflicts like this in the future, as the “service economy” loses ground.

America wasn’t built by people with desk jobs. For two centuries our greatness was fostered by people like this — people who built real things from real stuff — by engineers who found new ways to accomplish common tasks and by the craftsmen who made it all work.

These people deserve our respect, more respect than they’re getting, in an age when everybody wants to be a banker or a rock star. The Colony is a celebration of human ingenuity and hard work. The thugs may be fake, but the good guys are real.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

August 26, 2010 at 10:35

Posted in TV

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