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'The Colony' envisions the worst-case scenario

By Lisa Respers France, CNN
Volunteers on "The Colony" test their resourcefulness by living off the grid for 50 days in a deserted area of the Gulf Coast.
Volunteers on "The Colony" test their resourcefulness by living off the grid for 50 days in a deserted area of the Gulf Coast.
  • "The Colony" imagines a world after a calamity has destroyed much of humanity
  • Seven volunteers live for 50 days in a wasteland area of the Gulf Coast
  • Pop culture expert says part of the show's appeal is that it could actually happen

(CNN) -- Could you survive a global catastrophe that wiped out most of humanity?

That's the premise of "The Colony," a reality show on the Discovery Channel that drops seven strangers in a deserted area for 50 days where they are left to fend for themselves without food, running water, electricity and assistance from the outside world.

But before you dismiss it as a "Survivor" copycat, know that the contestants are not competing for any money, nor attempting to dodge being "voted off." They are willing participants in an experiment meant to simulate a real post-calamity society.

"We are not walking around in shorts eating bananas on the beach," said Reno Ministrelli, who appears on the show. "We are dirty, gritty and just trying to survive."

The colonists -- made up of a model, mechanic, carpenter, retired contractor, foreman, professor and an artist -- live as survivors of a simulated viral apocalypse. Each is subjected to 72 hours of isolation before being transported to a desolate 10-acre compound on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana that has been transformed into a wasteland of abandoned buildings after Hurricane Katrina.

Producers of the show worked closely with homeland security, engineering, psychology and medical experts to craft a realistic story line in which the group members are survivors of a mutation of the avian flu known as the nuclear flu. The colonists live completely off the grid and must depend upon themselves for even the most basic of needs.

Kirthana Ramisetti, managing editor of the pop culture site, notes that post-apocalyptic themes are hot right now in movies and television, with everything from "2012" and "I am Legend" to "Jericho."

But "The Colony," now in its second season, hits much closer to home, Ramisetti said.

"It's kind of the ultimate 'what if' scenario," she said. "It seems like the only kind of horror story that actually has a possibility of happening, especially in the wake of September 11 and some of the things we see happening today."

Ministrelli, 29, is a foreman at a wireless communications construction company and said life as a colonist was grueling. Not only did the group have to deal with the elements and wildlife, but they were also pitted against "outsiders" who were also struggling to survive -- even if that meant taking from the colonists, he said.

"You are working all day," he said. "Anything that you are planning to build has to be well thought out and it is so mentally and physically draining."

Sally Dawson, an auto mechanic and small-business owner, said she was intrigued by the show's concept after watching the first season. She said she was not as unnerved as she imagined she would have been given the lengths the show's producers went to make the experience seem true to life.

"I thought it was great how realistic it was," Dawson said. "It was so challenging and it didn't really shake me as badly as I thought it would."

In reviewing last season's series, Time's TV critic James Poniewozik, noted that the show can't be completely realistic.

"Of course, 'The Colony' can't really reproduce the strain of surviving the end of the world," Poniewozik wrote. "Its subjects haven't actually seen most of their loved ones die; they know they will return to a functioning society; we know (and a title card reminds us at the end) that experts are standing by to help them if they meet any actual danger. Still, the show is loaded with interviews with psychologists and homeland-security experts to remind us of the theoretical stakes."

Ramisetti said that as reality shows look to push the envelope and attract more viewers, there could be more reality shows such as "The Colony" that are actually looking to model real life.

"Reality TV has to find ways that are not only more compelling for the audience, but also for the participants," she said. "People are so schooled on how reality TV works in throwing a group of disparate people together and seeing how they interact. The reason why 'The Colony' is so interesting is that there is also an educational aspect with experts weighing in during the show."

Participant Dawson said she was proud to participate in the Discovery show, which she hopes will teach viewers that they are much more resilient than they might imagine.

"It's very doable to survive something like this," Dawson said. "I would hope people would realize the amount of excess we have and that we don't really need much."