Right now, the apocalypse is hip. Revolution and The Walking Dead are two of television's biggest success stories this season. The former is a surprise success for NBC, which is struggling otherwise, while the latter is breaking cable records on AMC. But the settings of these shows have more in common than their apocalyptic nature. The quality of their apocalypses, the drama they're attempting to mine, and the aspects of modern society they choose to discuss reveal a great deal about modern anxieties about population, morality, and climate change. But they don't necessarily confront these issues, head-on. Instead, they offer a “do-over.”
But it's the latter issue, that of climate change, that drives the recent popularity of the population apocalypses. Rapid climate change could be seen to indicate that we're undergoing a slow-motion apocalypse; it's something that affects us at a personal level, and it is both uncontrollable and unstoppable. Finally, it's something that, at its worst, will force Earth’s residents to focus on the facts of existence on the planet, like extreme weather events, food and water shortages, mass extinction, and potential political destabilization, while our social and technological focuses (including television!) are already often derided as distractions preventing the masses from pushing to make the world a better place. These two apocalypse-based shows thus function as allegories for climate change's worst-case scenarios; the grittier, more violent cable drama The Walking Dead portrays a world without hope while Revolution is notably brighter in tone, though not exactly uplifting. But they only function as allegories, manifesting an anxiety—will the world go to hell?—without actually engaging with it.
Both Revolution and The Walking Dead engage with the idea of the do-over. The institutions and leaders who failed or are failing to protect society from collapse are gone, but so too are the real-world effects of their failures. Global warming is irrelevant. These shows may use some of the symbolism and anxiety of a climate apocalypse, but they avoid dealing with it head-on, inadvertently promoting the idea that something almost magical will prevent us from having to deal with the excesses of civilization. This isn't necessarily just a component of current broadcast television: a 1990s version of Terra Nova and Revolution, SeaQuest DSV, was premised on overpopulation, resource exhaustion, and rising oceans from climate change.
But you don't even have to go back in time to see impending, uncontrollable societal collapse due to both climate change and immorality in a speculative fiction TV series. HBO's Game Of Thrones provides a mirror image to the apocalypses on Revolution and The Walking Dead. It takes place in a world unrelated to modern Earth, yet this just makes its allegory stronger. From the very beginning, the idea that “winter is coming” pervades the series, but the “is coming” shows that the apocalypse is on its way, instead of having happened already. And the “winter” exists in the literal sense, allegorical sense, and a magical sense. The season lasts for years in the world of Game Of Thrones, and this particular winter is expected to be harsh. The “winter” also refers to the brutal civil war that envelops the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Additionally, there's a supernatural threat of dark, uncontrollable magic returning to the world.
Robb's (and others') inability to break the cycle of civil war and violence is a clear commentary on the failures of real-world political leaders to see beyond smaller, short-term political considerations in order to solve larger problems, such as the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Perhaps most importantly, Game Of Thrones is built on the idea that the sins of the past destroy the hope of the future. The civil war of 15 years prior is a direct cause of the contemporary battles of the show, and the mistakes the characters make in the present, like Ned Stark's attempts at honor proving his downfall in the first season. The world of Game Of Thrones neither forgives nor forgets, and a do-over? Unthinkable.
This is not to say that the creators or fans of these shows view them as being explicitly about issues of population, climate change, or morality—that would be an especially difficult claim to make given that both The Walking Dead and Game Of Thrones are adaptations of older, already popular works. Rather, the point is that the popularity of certain kinds of apocalypse shows, both with the executives who greenlight them through the difficult pitch process and with the fans who support them, illustrates a need for these stories. The need comes from a feeling that something has gone horribly wrong with our political systems, with our societies, with our world, and with civilization itself. Television shows like The Walking Dead and Revolution draw power from the tension between our society's apocalypse anxiety and an allegory that trades complicated real issues for simple, if horrifying, escapism.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.