It started with the 2007 publication of The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's meditation on what would happen to the world without the human race. His book struck a rare and profitable chord with the reading public and, apparently, programming executives at certain cable channels.
The History Channel was first to capitalize on the fascination, and premiered Life After People in January of this year. The "two-hour television event" brought Weisman's themes of gradual decay to creepy CGI life, demonstrating how our cars, homes, buildings and cities -- everything but plastics, really -- would eventually succumb and crumble at the hands of Nature, leaving Earth to its plants, wildlife and whatever feral pets were canny or lucky enough to survive.
Now, the National Geographic Channel has entered the fray with Aftermath: Population Zero, a two-hour me-too presentation that promises another lavish exploration of the world's slow grind to a halt and eventual rebirth as a people-free Eden. If you missed it the first time around, Aftermath will be broadcast again on Wednesday night at 9pm Eastern.
Post-apocalyptic speculation is nothing new. But in every other incarnation I can think of, there's always been a small band of survivors, or at the very least one lone man holed up in a house or a cave, fighting to stay alive and attempting to set things right once again. The sentiment has always been, "Yes, things are bad, and they'll probably get worse, but humanity will rise once again, and it will be better."
Weisman and his cable-network followers aren't providing us with this comfort, and that's what is new and interesting here. By dispensing with the notion of human survival -- what ultimately does us in is never really addressed -- and focusing on what happens afterward, we get the global equivalent of the suicide's wish to attend his or her own funeral. And just like that fabled funeral, it's ultimately a disappointment because not enough people show up and eventually life goes on.
The horror lover in me appreciates this ultimate end-game approach. It's the end of the world as we know it, with all the thrill of destruction and none of those pesky characters who'll either live or die.
But why this and why now?
One reason might be that our standard apocalyptic scenarios -- like most of our well-worn bogey monsters -- no longer have the power to excite us. We need something bigger, stronger and meaner to get our scare on and the no-people apocalypse fills the bills nicely.
A second possibility is that, like Kansas City in the musical Oklahoma, we believe we've gone about as far as we can go, and it's time to start collectively start contemplating our own demise.
Number three is the strangest and most upsetting. Perhaps the human race is tuning in -- even subconsciously -- to all those 2012 doomsday scenarios currently making the rounds. We're beginning to realize that the clock is ticking, time is almost up, and we need to get used to that idea.
It's this last one that gives me the most willies, since only the slow passage of time can confirm or deny all those dark rumors of apocalypse and doom. Stay tuned. There may not be anyone around to witness the world's rebirth, but everything leading up to it is sure to be a pretty good horror show.
UPDATE: We watched Aftermath last night. It was boring.