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Top five TV dystopias

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Get ready for our Dystopia on Screen talk with some of the best stories you can stream right now. 

Climate change, trade wars, traditional wars, Nazis, inequality, black holes, Trump... it’s not hard to think that today’s headlines have been borrowed from the Book of Revelations. Though the book was written back around 81 AD, the fire and fury still burns today, and it’s not just Christians getting down with the end times. Buddhists have the Sermon of the Seven Suns, the Norse have Ragnarok, the Mayans have that inaccurate calendar and we have Black Mirror. Seriously, ever since Danish sci-fi drama The End of the World in 1916, TV and cinema has been one of the best ways to exorcise our fears and anxieties, releasing them in sweet, Roland Emmerich-inspired destructive catharsis.

So why do we love seeing so much dystopic destruction? Because it feels fine. Or, because as neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek told Scientific American, there may ‘be comfort in being able to attribute doom to some larger cosmic prophecy’ that ‘removes any sense of individual responsibility’. Lissek also posits that apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats predictable (however incorrectly), and thus more manageable to the human psyche.

Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and author Steven Schlozman thinks dystopias and the post-apocalypse are appealing to people who ‘imagine surviving, thriving and going back to nature’, and abdicating any of the boring parts of life like homework (amen).

But is dystopia really relaxing? Probably not, but we’re going to delve deep into screen dystopias in an upcoming ACMI Conversation so to get you ready for the end, here are some of the best TV to stream before the whole shithouse goes up in flames.

The Handmaid’s Tale

This list wouldn’t be complete without a journey to the dark heart of Gillead, former land of the free struggling under theocratic tyranny – especially if you’re a woman. If you haven’t caught this acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s novel, congratulations, your bomb shelter must be air tight, but it’s time to come back into the light.

Starring Elizabeth Moss as Offred and the woman previously known as June, The Handmaid’s Tale follows her fight for freedom in world where women are treated like cattle (they’re literary proded, branded and bred), all in the name of the good Lord. With women’s reproductive rights again being debated across the US and Australia, the #MeToo movement, the gender pay disparity and unending violence against women, The Handmaid’s Tale feels grimly prescient.

Stream it on SBS on Demand.

The 100

Once you get over the fact that half the cast of this teen drama first appeared in Australian and American soaps, and that it’s a genre teen drama, you’ll realise The 100 is one of the most morally complex pieces of storytelling on TV.

In the future the world is an uninhabitable, nuclear wasteland and humanity circles above in space stations. But the space stations are running out of air, so to free up the precious oxygen, the teen jailbirds of the society are jettisoned to earth to fend for themselves – by their parents. And shit gets real on the ground too, where the kids encounter barbaric survivors, betrayal in their own ranks, dwindling resources and radioactive rain. Don’t let the sci-fi setting put you off, the moral choices the kids make to survive are some of the most gut-wrenching decisions you’ll see on screen.

Not to mention that the protagonist is an openly bisexual woman who is one of the more complicated heroes on TV. And of course, there’s #Clexa.

Stream it on Netflix.

The Leftovers

Come for the Rapture, stay for the Carrie Coon performance and Jennifer Aniston’s ex-husband jogging. When a cataclysmic event known as the Sudden Departure disappears 140 million people worldwide, those left behind pick up their shattered lives without any direction from up high. Some join silent cults and troll society, others silence their better natures and others just go quietly and desperately insane with both hope and despair. And it’s all glorious to watch, despite ostensibly being a heart-rending rumination on grief.

The performances are stellar, particularly the aforementioned Coon, Justin Theroux and Ann Dowd (pre-Aunt Lydia) as the nefarious cult leader that you just can’t keep down. Adapted from Tom Perotta’s book of the same name with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, The Leftovers was largely and unfairly overlooked during its three seasons, but it’s since received the acclaim it deserves, with Rolling Stone calling it ‘one of TV’s greatest 21st century dramas’, and the limited duration makes it perfect to go back and binge now.

Also, scenes were shot at ACMI for the third season so you can be part of the dystopia if you visit us.

Stream it on Foxtel.

Doomsday Preppers

This is not a joke, this is a learning opportunity for the end times so grab your go bag and get ready. From economic collapse and oppressive governments to nuclear war and super viruses, what the titular Doomsday Preppers believe offers a keen insight into the millenarian mindset of ‘ordinary Americans’.

Like Steve H, a contractor who thinks economic collapse is going to lead to roving pockets of unrest that are going to ‘hit’ his house. He’s got alarms, video cameras, guns and traps but it’s still not enough. Luckily he’s got a booby-trapped cabin in the woods patrolled by his armed eight-year-old son.

Gun nuts, conspiracy theorists and the paranoid brainwash their families into obsessive freeze-drying, stockpiling, dehydrating, canning, patrolling and shooting. It seems bananas, but then so did Galileo so who are we to judge? If you want to learn how unprepared you are for doomsday or just observe extreme American paranoia, this is the show for you.  

Stream it on Netflix.

Cleverman

As Nayuka Gorrie writes, for Aboriginal people, dystopian TV can feel a lot like real life and this theme comes to life in the ABC/Sundance mini-series Cleverman.

Combining Kamilaroi and Bundjalung mythology with a superhero story, the series focuses on a group of people, all played by Aboriginal actors, known as "Hairies". Despite trying to assimilate into the society that fears them, the Hairies are pushed into a Gaza-strip style ghetto known as The Zone, where they’re routinely harassed by the Containment Force and corporate fascists.

The violence against the Hairies is difficult to watch, particularly when you consider that little has changed for Aboriginal people since 1788, and that the apocalypse narrative and continual erosion of rights is an ongoing reality for First Nations people.

Dystopia on Screen is on Tuesday 4 September, as part of ACMI Conversations.