Tonight, January 21, the History Channel is broadcasting a new documentary called Life After People. While the premise is fascinating, the documentary doesn’t rise above its made-for-TV, History Channel roots.
Premiere Air Date
While the documentary seems to be cashing in on the popularity of I Am Legend, there actually was a book from last year called The World Without Us that sounds uncannily similar. While the documentary doesn’t mention the book, both raise the same question. At some point, humanity will go extinct; when that happens, what will remain of us, and for how long?
Life After People is very loosely structured along a timeline. The first segment ponders the day we disappear (what will happen to our family pets?), and the last segment ponders 10,000 years later. Not every topic actually belongs in a specific timeframe — why discuss the fate of cockroaches after 50 years, and not 75? — so the show feels a little random and episodic. But each couple-minute episode is fairly interesting.
For example, the subways of New York will begin to flood after only a couple of days without people to man the pumps. Power to Las Vegas may last quite a bit longer; the Hoover Dam is very well built, and it can operate for several weeks without people to clean the invasive mollusks out of its cooling-water intakes. The last vestige of humanity to disappear will be stone or concrete — maybe the pyramids, maybe the Hoover Dam, or maybe the faces on Mt. Rushmore.
In interviews with experts and from the alarmist narration, the documentary tells us how long our cultural achievements might last. Film and digital media might last a hundred years. Books will mold in about that much time. Our radio signals will probably dissipate before they get to the nearest star. Our architecture has fatal flaws: steel and other metals will corrode, which will also do in any concrete with steel rebar. Our cities will be swallowed up by vegetation.
Life After People is fairly interesting, thanks largely to its subject matter. But as a documentary, it’s little better than your average two hours of television. The core concept is sensationalized to the point of self-parody. The narrator speaks gravely over rumbling soundscapes. The writers use phrases like “nature’s revenge” when describing, say, erosion. When it comes to the point of our bridges and buildings collapsing, the editor can’t seem to get enough. We watch animations of the Space Needle in Seattle, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and The George Washington Bridge in New York City, all tumbling down dramatically. Then we watch them again. And again. And again. Homer and Bart would love it (I remember them tuning in to “When Buildings Collapse!”) But hey, it’s the History Channel. That means it’s educational, right?