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The apocalypse as a plotline

If the world ends today, as some insist the Mayan calendar has predicted, no one can say we weren’t psychologically prepared. Our pop culture has been schooling us in the end of the world for eons, rehearsing doomsday scenarios in everything from Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” and H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” to “The Road” and “The Hunger Games.” Even New England’s TV weathermen have done their part, regularly promising catastrophic snowstorms that convert ordinary viewers into “doomsday preppers” clogging supermarket aisles.

At this point, many of us are quite fond of the buzz that comes with fictional catastrophes and their ensuing drama and romance. Envisioning the end of the world as we know it — on TV’s “The Walking Dead,” say, or in any number of video games, movies, and books — we feel fine. Every week, we can find more than enough decimated urban landscapes, heroic survivors, and warnings about humankind’s hubris to feed our addictions. Coming to theaters in 2013: “Warm Bodies,” Brad Pitt’s “World War Z,” and Seth Rogen’s “The End of the World.”

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Most of us began our apocalypse love with a gateway drug. For some, it was watching Charlton Heston’s last-man-standing-with-hairy-chest movies of the late 1960s and ’70s, including “Planet of the Apes,” “The Omega Man,” and the broody-foodie masterpiece, “Soylent Green.” For others, it was reading Stephen King’s “The Stand,” or Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End,” or the Christian-based “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, or well, the Bible, with “the writing on the wall.”

Turning future generations into we’re-all-dead heads, along with “The Hunger Games”? The animated “WALL-E,” perhaps, or Lars von Trier’s enigmatic “Melancholia.” Or maybe it will be the endless stream of Doom TV — and I’m not talking Kardashian. In addition to AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” you can find the likes of “Revolution” on NBC, “Falling Skies” on TNT, and Tom Hanks’s “Electric City” online, all of which follow on the heels of “Jericho,” “Terra Nova,” and “Jeremiah.” And there are end-is-nigh docu-series wallpapering cable: “Doomsday Preppers,” the popular stockpiling series on National Geographic, is the center of an exploding solar system of programming that has included “Doomsday Bunkers” and “Zombie Apocalypse,” both on Discovery, and “Life After People” on History.

A zombie from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

AMC

A zombie from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

The movie that turned me into a lover of end times was “On the Beach,” the 1959 melodrama based on the Neville Shute novel. As nuclear fallout from World War III drifts down to Australia, a group of people — Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Anthony Perkins — toss out bad faith and artificial poses and get real with one another. The unnervingly calm pace, the farewell between Gardner and Peck, the sun on the laughing water as they kiss — it was seductive and profoundly romantic, and it taught me a longing for the last moments of the world. Shute’s story was so overheated, so tragique, it inspired the Pope of Mope himself, Morrissey, to write “Everyday Is Like Sunday,” with its cry, “Come Armageddon, come Armageddon, come.”

And then, for me, it was only a short trip from breathing in “On the Beach” to sticking “V” and “Children of Men” and “The Twilight Zone” straight into my veins. There is something moving about an effective imagining of the end, something that invites you to be here now. As Joni Mitchell could have put it, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got till you think it might be gone someday.” It’s a dose of perspective. And there is something consoling, too, in imagining yourself as one of the survivors, part of a tightly knit community on the run together, shedding the complications of civilization for a more primitive existence. You feel the clarity of a clean slate — once you’ve destroyed all the zombies, evil 1970s bikers, and Orwellian overlords, that is.

Doug in his spider hole in the National Geographic series, “Doomsday Preppers.”

Sharp Entertainment / Marc Kroll

Doug in his spider hole in the National Geographic series, “Doomsday Preppers.”

But are we getting too much apocalypse these days? I’m thinking yes.

The genre, particularly on TV, is in danger of meaninglessness when even commercials — such as Chevy’s 2012 Super Bowl truck ad — are set on a post-apocalyptic junkpile formerly doing business as Earth. How better to manipulate consumers than by suggesting your product will help them survive catastrophe? To me, the value of apocalyptic fantasies is to remind us of what truly matters, so, ideally, we won’t squander it — not to push us further into materialism. As the genre gets done to death, as we approach apocalypse always, rich aftermath scenarios run the risk of losing their potency. It’s like what happened to “24,” as Jack Bauer raced to save the nation every season. By season 8, the eye-glazing series had lost its power and become a Chicken Little joke about falling skies.

“Revolution,” in particular, is a waste of an apocalyptic setting, turning what should be a heightened drama about humanity into a forest romp wrung of emotional import. The lights have gone out on Earth; all the computers and gadgets are dead. Humans have been robbed of the digital glow and returned to the basics — including swords and “Hunger Games”-like bows and arrows. That Google millionaire? Left to his own devices. It’s a great premise, a wish fulfillment for every person who has ever tossed off a comment about how we’re all chained to our cellphones and never living in the moment. But then the fantasy is weighted down by a lame mythology drama, a pale imitation of what fueled the apocalypse-y “Lost” for so many good seasons. There’s none of the angst-ridden looking within that plagues those in “The Walking Dead” and gives the show a B-movie edge. The good guys and the bad guys in “Revolution” are equally forgettable, and their hair is perfect.

In this way, the apocalypse is on the verge of becoming just another milieu for predictable plotlines, like courtrooms, police stations, and hospitals — “ER at the End of the World” or “Thaw & Order.” Really not helping matters: the apocalyptic nonfiction of the prepper series, which elevate people who are too busy storing food for themselves to think about life. The mundane prepper impulse to outwit, outlast, and outplay (to borrow the “Survivor” motto) has gone way over the top when a show such as “Zombie Apocalypse” has academics and scientists seriously considering a zombie epidemic. And now, amid reports that the mother of the Newtown shooter, Nancy Lanza, was a doomsday prepper, these shows feel particularly tone-deaf.

Rather than provoking fear, hysteria, or boredom, a good apocalyptic story ought to bring us into the here and now — no matter how endangered it might be.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter
@MatthewGilbert
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