It's always interesting to me to see the different ways pop culture products reflect their times. Here's an article from the Times last week about the resurgence of sit-coms during the bad economy (people want to laugh); during the post-nuclear years, science fiction and horror movies capitalized on the uncertainty of suddenly living in a world that could be annihilated in a day (people wanted to express their fears); Post-Watergate it was paranoia that struck deep, captured in movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View (people wanted Robert Redford and Warren Beatty).
But what in the world could be the zeitgeist at work with not one but two cable documentary series that deal with what would happen to the world if all human beings suddenly and inexplicably vanished? That people want to... not exist anymore?
Well, whether they want to or not, in these two series they definitely don't. First, the shows: The original is Life After People, now in its second season on The History Channel. A cable hit, yes, but clearly detecting a desire for still more of what I like to call Armageddon porn, The National Geographic Channel this year came out with Aftermath: Population Zero. With both programs, the premise is the same: what would happen to the earth if one day we were all gone?
Okay, you say, define "gone." Gone and gotten blowed up real good in a nuclear holocaust? Gone to heaven in The Rapture? Gone fishin'? The shows don't explain. They simply depict no more people on the planet, and then get around to the real reason for the programs: showing what happens over the days, years, and centuries, to all the stuff people left behind. You know, bridges, cars, the Eiffel Tower. All the crap from that "Hoarders" program.
It's a strange and dark form of entertainment, as you first watch the shows. Then, again, at least you don't have to worry about keeping up with any complex character development. And the fact is, there's something weirdly fascinating about watching how the world and all the things in it would fare on their own. (I should mention here that all other biological forms -- flora and fauna -- seem to have had no problem surviving whatever it was that eliminated homo sapiens from the equation. Zoo animals, dogs, feral pigs -- that's right, I said feral pigs -- feed and drink and multiply so capably one gets the impression we humans have been pretty much cramping their style all these eons.) But man-made structures and objects, even those that came with solid warranties, they're all doomed. It might not happen for hundreds of years, but when that arch in St. Louis finally tumbles down, not to mention the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and Hoover Dam, all feral pigs in the area will want to stand back, because they land pretty hard.
Ultimately the "no humans" programs accomplish several things: for one, they teach that the earth eventually heals itself, and that with enough time, what man creates from dust indeed returns to dust. Also, you'll find yourself with quite a bit more appreciation for the maintenance men in your building. But mostly, these shows make you ask the big questions about existence: Who are we? Why are we here? And -- most importantly -- hey, where the hell did everybody go?