Got Doomsday on the brain? Given that this Friday may or may not be the end of the world, you'd be forgiven if you do. So why not indulge your preoccupation with "Apocalypse"? The TV special, orchestrated by famed British psychological illusionist Derren Brown, is a fascinating take on apocalypse and apocalyptic thinking.
Brown has spent the last 12 years blowing people's minds on British television with his unique blend of magic, suggestion, psychology, illusions and misdirection. In "Apocalypse," he cranks everything up a notch with an elaborately concocted social experiment that places unsuspecting bloke Steven Brosnan in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Brosnan's family is in on it, and hopes that Brown's ultimate goal -- to stop Brosnan from taking his life for granted -- comes to fruition.
Of course, faking a zombie apocalypse was no easy task. We caught up with Brown to chat about how he and his team pulled it off, why he threw zombies into the mix, and what he has to say about the skeptics who claim the whole thing was staged.
How did you find Steven?
I tweeted for volunteers [Brown has over 1.4 million Twitter followers]. And then out of the thousands who applied, everybody was sent a questionnaire. And then we got about 500 people together who we thought could potentially be right for the show. We needed people who basically took their life for granted. You wouldn't normally tick a box on a questionnaire saying 'Yes, I take my life for granted,' so we had to work that out. We do a few tests and games and interviews with them, and then get a sense of it.
What we were looking for was someone who, on the one hand, did take his life for granted, but also, on the other hand, was somebody who you would like enough to root for him during his journey. He was just perfect for it. He was such a slob at the start, but then of course you really like him. It wasn't just about finding somebody who would be a good sap. He had to be somebody we could all relate to.
Trailer: "Derren Brown's Apocalypse"
What did he think he was signing up for?
They didn't know what they're applying for, they just knew they're applying to my new show. We just don't tell them what it is. There's lots of red herrings that got thrown in. When we were down to a smaller group, we got them interviewed by an independent psychologist to make sure that they were robust enough and there are no lurking demons that we might tap into. We picked Steven and we told him we weren't going to use him. And a few months later we set up cameras in his house and started to use him!
What were some of the biggest logistical challenges of putting something like this together?
It's massive. First of all, there are two big chunks of the program. The first chunk is pre-Apocalypse, when we convince this guy that this is going to happen. His whole house is decked out with hidden cameras, and his family obviously is all in on it. Even that's a tricky thing because you have to physically change tapes and cameras. So we had people basically living in his garden shed. The other thing is post-Apocalypse, when he wakes up in this post-Apocalyptic world. That's a huge, massive project. We have to film everything in a way that's completely hidden, he can't have any sense that anything's going on. The actors have to be trained to respond to him in any way that he reacts, we have to make sure that he's not going to attack any of the zombies. The biggest logistical issue is you're writing a drama for somebody who has no idea that they're in it. This is not a guy with a script. But that's the fun of it, that's what makes it unique.
Why did you decide to throw zombies into the equation?
[Laughs] Well, it needed an antagonist! Basically, the story is he goes through his "Wizard of Oz" experience. He wakes up no longer in his world, and he learns to value what he has. That's really what the show is about. So the journey that he goes on with the other 'survivors' is about learning to have courage, learning to be decisive and learning to be selfless. In order for that to work dramatically, you also need some sort of threat. The zombies in a way symbolize his earlier self, his zombie-like slob self.
Were you ever concerned about going too far with things?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that I took his welfare -- we all did -- hugely seriously. But no in the sense that everything was in place and there was no way that he could go wrong like that. All of this is devised with the psychologist, as well. If he completely freaked out, we could always stop it. But actually once you're so far into it, it's always best to see the journey through because it's going to bring him this amazing transformation.
Did any of his reactions throughout the process surprise you?
What's interesting is how differently people react in these situations than they do in movies. There are always skeptics, always people who say, "Oh, it's all fake, it's all set up." I wouldn't react like that. I would just freak out, I would just attack everybody. The reality is sometimes people react in a way that's not quite what you would expect.
Did everything go as you hoped it would?
Yes. Pretty much. It didn't rain. He got everything out of it that he was supposed to. I think there was one moment when he was out with one of the other 'survivors' and he just caught sight of one of our crew who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It really had us on edge, but he thought it was one of the infected. The actor he was with just pulled him inside and made sense of it for him. That was a terrifying moment. It would take a huge amount to go wrong to convince you that the entire world around you is fabricated. It's the real "Truman Show." We were paranoid there would be some tiny slip-up that would give it away, but the reality is it's actually a very robust situation where it would take a lot to make him realize that everything was fake.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
The drive of the show came from a Stoic philosophy that said one way of being happy is to desire the things that you already have, rather than constantly desiring things that you don't have and winding up on that treadmill of just wanting more and more stuff. The way to achieve that is mentally rehearsing losing everything that you've got. It sounds very morbid, but carrying out that sort of exercise reminds you that the things you have are of value.
"Derren Brown: Apocalypse" premieres on Space on Wednesday, December 19 at 9 p.m. EST.
"All in the Family"
Original UK Series: "Till Death Us Do Part" The show that introduced the world to "lovable bigot" Archie Bunker, "All in the Family" was the first series to spend five consecutive years on top of the Nielsen ratings. Produced by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin (who also adapted "Sanford and Son" from its UK predecessor) the sitcom was notable for its decision to tackle social issues that other network comedies of the time had never touched, such as homosexuality, racism, rape, abortion, breast cancer and the Vietnam war.
"Sanford and Son"
Original UK Series: "Steptoe and Son" This iconic NBC sitcom, which aired from 1972 until 1977, was one of the highest rated shows of its time, peaking at number 2 in the ratings behind only "All in the Family." It is considered groundbreaking for its portrayal of race, and is thought to have paved the way for "The Cosby Show" and other sitcoms centered around African American families. (Although the British original was groundbreaking in different ways, notably for its elements of social realism, it featured Caucasian leads.)
Original UK Series: "Dragon's Den" A hit in both the UK and Canada, "Dragon's Den" embodies all the elements of a hit reality show: Judges with attitude, random wackiness, and average Joes who either make money or fools of themselves. "Shark Tank" works because it didn't meddle with the winning formula -- it's harsh, cruel and blunt; it even uses two of the same "Sharks" that appear on the Canadian version.
Original UK Series: "Hell's Kitchen" The thread that ties these two together is Gordon Ramsay. Without his acerbic, curse-laden diatribes, this show would not work on either continent. There's something almost cathartic about watching "Hell's Kitchen," which might be why it works so well -- you instantly feel better about your own cooking, and you can release a bit of anger every time Ramsay yells at one of the contestants.
Original UK Series: "Shameless" Showtime's American adaptation of "Shameless" has worked for a few reasons. Most importantly, its central story of a dysfunctional family struggling to make ends meet resonated with audiences during the recession. The show also hit home runs with its casting: William H. Macy plays a great drunk, and Emmy Rossum has emerged as the show's tough, sexy breakout star.
"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?"
Original UK Series: "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" There are a two very simple reasons "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" took off in the US. Number one: Every single American TV viewer would like to be a millionaire. Number two: Regis Philbin and his monochromatic shirt/tie combinations were awesome.
Original UK Series: "The Office" Ricky Gervais' British sitcom "The Office" premiered in 2001 and followed the employees of the fictional Wernham Hogg Paper Company. Though it only lasted two seasons in the UK, it lives on in the US. The American version starred Steve Carell and made him a highly-coveted film actor, and did the same for John Krasinski, Jenna Fischer and more of its stars. Now going into its ninth season, the dry humor and mockumentary-style series about the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company employees set the tone for many more comedies to come (i.e. "Modern Family").
"What Not to Wear"
Original UK Series: "What Not to Wear" The BAFTA-nominated original UK series "What Not To Wear" had Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine makeover some of the UK's most awfully dressed Brits for five seasons (before they left and Lisa Butcher and Mica Paris took over for the show's sixth and seventh seasons). Though the US installment of "What Not to Wear" premiered shortly thereafter with a bit of a rough start with Wayne Scot Lukas, the American version found its footing in Season 2. The dynamic between Stacy London and Clinton Kelly has helped the show last for nine seasons and counting.
"Queer as Folk"
Original UK Series: "Queer as Folk" The UK's original "Queer as Folk" made its debut in 1999 and broke gay stereotypes throughout its two seasons, as did the US remake. "Queer as Folk" premiered on Showtime stateside in 2000 and made a splash as the first hour-long drama on American television to portray the lives of gay men and women. The series covered homophobia, late-in-life gay characters, coming out, gay adoption, HIV and many more taboo subjects. "Queer as Folk" broke down cultural barriers, paving the way for series like "The L Word" to make their debut and for acceptance of the gay community at large.
Original UK Series: "Man About The House" The UK original lasted six seasons in the early-to-mid-'70s, but the US version produced more than four times as many episodes (172 in total) over its eight seasons on the air, mainly due to a hilarious cast led by the late John Ritter.
"Dancing With the Stars"
Original UK Series: "Strictly Come Dancing" Before there was Pam Anderson, Drew Lachey and Bristol Palin (just three of the U.S. version's "All Stars" for Season 15), there was the UK's "Strictly Come Dancing," which premiered in 2004 and immediately spawned international spin-offs in 32 other countries and counting.
Original UK Series: "Pop Idol" "American Idol" is a ratings juggernaut, and it's not showing many signs of slowing down. With a revolving panel of music icons as celebrity judges and a fanbase that not only votes each week for their favorite singers, but buys their music and follows the contestants on tour, this is the reality competition to beat in the ratings.
Original UK Series: "Changing Rooms" It's not easy to find designers who are personable, talented and able to deal with the demands of a microbudget, time-crunched renovation, but both of these shows managed to do that, which is why they were both long-running hits in their respective countries. On both shows, viewers got crash courses in how to remake a room for very little dough, and even if we ultimately preferred the mildly acerbic British designers, both shows were the best kind of how-to program: They made you actually think you might be able to accomplish something similar (if you got off your couch, that is).
Original UK series: "Prime Suspect" We know, we know, the Helen Mirren original is a classic character-driven cop drama and the NBC show never quite rose to the heights that the UK series did. Having said that, NBC's version of the cop show evolved into an enjoyably meaty, well-acted ensemble drama that made great use of its versatile, talented cast and a committed performance from star Maria Bello. We were all ready to doubt the US version of the show, but her Jane Timoney made believers of us during "Prime Suspect's" brief run on the Peacock network.
Original UK Series: "The Inbetweeners" Though time will tell if the MTV adaptation will be able to rival the cult appeal of the original, the first three episodes of the new comedy prove just as charming as the British show, albeit in distinctly American ways. British humor may be dry and acerbic, but the new cast has undeniable chemistry and comic timing, and it will be interesting to see where the show goes when it starts utilizing its original material, rather than the six episodes it based on the UK series.
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