Standing in the back of a military transport truck, teeth rattling in my head as we drive up a bumpy incline to an undisclosed location deep in the Carolina mountains -- where all surrounding road markers have been blacked out – I find myself wondering whether the payoff is really going to be worth it or if this is just another schticky publicity stunt for a new TV show.
But when I first see the castle, it is hard to be anything but impressed. A massive reinforced cinder block fortress, this is the setting for “Doomsday Castle,” a spin-off of National Geographic Channel’s popular “Doomsday Preppers” that combines a fascination with the apocalyptic preparedness subculture with “Game of Thrones” violence and family politics, and the sensibility of “Real World.”
Airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m., “Doomsday Castle” focuses on the “Castle Family,” who have come together to assist with patriarch Brent Sr.’s goal of building an apocalypse-proof home for his family in the event of a civilization-altering electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that completely shuts down the power grid.
For some reason, the castle itself reminds me of something out of “Army of Darkness.” It was constructed for tactical advantage at an elevation of 1500 feet with views of the surrounding mountains and forests. The Doomsday Castle looks like it was built in a bad medieval neighborhood. Though each has a function in a post-EMP world, there are bits and pieces from vehicles and appliances littering the property. And while not Sam Raimi’s 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88, a propane-fueled, pre-microchip 1974 Chevy Blazer sits in muddy red clay -- next to the operational trebuchet and in view of the castle zipline, around the corner from the bunker entrance.
As remarkable as the structure is, the castle isn’t especially attractive. But that’s where the family comes in. Over the course of eight episodes, drama emerges as the family lives together in the castle for three months learning to construct, defend, and survive after an EMP.
Yet while they are preparing for the end of the world as we know it, audiences might want to prep for a rising batch of reality TV stars. Instead of a cast of crackpot weirdoes, the Castle Family are a primarily young, attractive bunch who each look like they belong on TV. And Nat Geo hit a casting gold mine with a group of characters that will inspire rooting from audiences.
Brent Sr. is the R. Lee Ermey of the castle. A tough-looking dude who would be at home in “The Expendables.” He’s a retired infantry officer who first began work on the castle in the ’90s to prepare for Y2K, but now seeks to complete construction while also toughening up his kids to survive doomsday. Meanwhile Brent II is the older smart-ass prodigal son who seeks to prove his worth to his dad. Michael, 20, is his father’s son who has contributed regularly to the castle’s construction, but is also a musician. Dawn Marie is Michael’s twin, the “designated warrior” who nailed a headshot with a bow and arrow. Lindsey, 22, is an aspiring businesswoman who has taken to the prepper mindset. And Ashley, 24, admits to being a girly-girl who wants to be a model or actress, and who takes refuge in a look-out post she designates “Camp Karma.”
Throughout my day at the castle, I spent time with each family member touring the facilities. I learned about their three-tiered trip-wire alarm systems and booby traps. I rappelled and ziplined off the castle. I brushed up on my crossbow and bow-and-arrow training. And I launched a bowling ball into the forest with the trebuchet (and yes there’s video).
But I mainly watched the dynamics of the family of this real-world Winterfell. Amongst all the talk of marauders, sieges, lockdown drills, hunting, gathering and fighting (sometimes with castle lamps that double as Molotov cocktails) – there was a family that sniped, supported, became frustrated with and played with one another. They wanted to be listened to, they hated being interrupted, the kids vied for their father’s attention, and the father demanded the kids pay attention.
It basically looked like what might happen if Eddard Stark had stayed in the north and let a camera crew into his home instead of accepting a job offer as Hand of the King. That’s what translates on camera with what I’ve seen on “Doomsday Castle.” Rather than pointing a finger at an eccentric subculture, the show’s strength lies in spending a lot of time with these characters who exist in this post-apocalyptic fantasy scenario.
But there is also this really nerdy vibe to the show, which extends to the 8-bit style Doomsday Castle Defender game National Geographic features on its site. Even though the show's format has typical reality-TV weaknesses, like challenges and off-the-cuff cutaways that sometimes feel too forced, it is as if the network wants to target a Thronie and Tolkien-loving demo as much as those out there actually building their own EOTWAWKI crib. And that kind of works; fantasy nerds have spent a lot of time reading about and roleplaying as guardians of realms and kingdoms, so we might dig watching folks actually doing it.
That's why I'll stick around for another couple episodes of "Doomsday Castle." After that teeth-rattling ride and the reveal of the fortress -- and then meeting the family behind the walls -- I'm compelled to see more of this "Real World" meets "Game of Thrones" ... meets the apocalypse.
It is often weird, but fun and engaging because, hell, how can you not enjoy watching a young, attractive family bickering over the best tactics to create, fortify and test a draw bridge using high-powered weaponry and a homemade tractor-powered battering ram?