While nowadays it’s not surprising to see acclaimed directors jumping into the world of TV, in the early 2000s, the idea of a film festival favourite helming a high-budget show seemed extremely odd. There were very few names brave enough to delve into both worlds, though arguably one of the most famous was David Lynch, who after earning high critical praise with films like Eraserhead and Wild at Heart, created the now iconic Twin Peaks in the early 90s. Following Lynch’s lead, queer independent filmmaker Gregg Araki almost added his name to that small list with his project This is How the World Ends, almost a decade later. However, this project never came to be and has instead been left to float around the realms of YouTube.
In the early 90s, Araki started to establish himself as one of the most promising voices in American independent cinema and in the New Queer Cinema movement with low-budget films such as The Living End, which would go on to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992. As he moved forward in his career, Araki started to evolve his style into something truly unique and began to cultivate an impact of his own in the cinematic landscape of the mid-90s. That is most apparent in his Teenage Apocalypse trilogy (Totally F*cked Up, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere), where Araki focused on portrayals of disaffected, alienated youth in the margins of mainstream American society. The young people in these films desperately seek to escape a world they think to be meaningless, while evading heteronormativity by embracing sexual fluidity. But Araki’s films are also incredibly blunt in articulating the tragedies of living in a world so cruel and alien to such youth, by using dark humour and surreal depictions of dominant American pop-culture and its effects on young people. The prevalent atmosphere in Gregg Araki’s movies is thus one of senseless overstimulation, mirroring the inner lives of his predominantly queer characters, as they always seem to live in an absurd hyperreality constantly on the brink of collapse.
At the time, a body of work like Araki’s could only be found in the underground, since such types of stories and experiences were so different from what was shown in mainstream culture. But it is curious that all of Araki’s previously explored themes and aesthetic choices are present in almost every aspect of the This is How the World Ends pilot – a would-be major project for one of the most popular channels at the time. In fact, in this sole episode of TV, Araki seemed to have decided to actually up the weirdness levels of his filmmaking, presenting his typical brand of teen ennui with an added dose of absurd comedy, at times operating in a near-parody of the mainstream heteronormative teen culture that MTV itself often presented.
This is How the World Ends portrays a group of teenagers, Casper (Alan Simpson), Miles (Tac Fitzgerald), and Sluggo (Molly Brenner), navigating teen life in an exaggerated, dream-like version of the stereotypical American high school. Casper, almost what one could describe as an incel in 2020, chases around Christmas (Kelli Garner), the most popular girl at school, but not without some brief homoerotic tension with Miles, a cool skater-type who just happens to be having an affair with Casper’s mom. Meanwhile, Sluggo finds her first love with a goth witch named Magenta (Michelle Ongkingco) at a beach party.
If the core plot doesn’t sound looney enough, some details and visual stylings surely do. A 90s MTV-approved soundtrack featuring the Chemical Brothers, Radiohead, Beastie Boys, and Green Day accompanies the overwhelmingly colourful sets, which look more like postmodernist art installations than backgrounds for a teen show. And with appearances from a screenwriting professor that would fit in like a glove in a Magic Mike live show, and Twin Peaks’ Michael Anderson (who you may know as The Man From Another Place), there is almost too much going on in just 45 minutes. Capping this off with dialogue that was almost prophetically primed for Gen Z reaction memes, This is How the World Ends is both a gold-mine of a time capsule with its parody of late 90s pop-culture aesthetics, and a weirdly futuristic, timeless oddity that seems poised for a cult-following 20 years later.
With something so strange on their plate, no wonder an outlet like MTV passed on the pilot. But what seems the most baffling about this situation is why they would take a chance on Araki in the first place. Though the channel was the home for some alternative, edgier entertainment such as Daria and Beavis and Butt-head, neither show was as revolutionary as Araki’s previous work.
The auteur’s subversion of heteronormative tropes in the Teenage Apocalypse trilogy was like nothing else on TV, especially in the teen show genre, which at the time was dominated by relatively tame shows like Dawson’s Creek and 90210. Visually, too, This is How the World Ends was drastically different from anything else, insisting on a high-budget version of Araki’s preferred maximalist style. As is apparent in this pilot, Araki never seemed interested in downplaying his ideas for corporate success, instead opting for a synthesis of the same themes that made him such a staple of queer cinema throughout the 90s. Like the daring individual he always carried himself as, his goal always was to put forward a product for the American audience that challenged the tropes they were used to consuming, and push the boundaries of what teen television created by a man in the LGBTQ+ community could look like.
Upon watching this pilot, you can’t help but think of what could have been if the show had aired and been picked up for a full season. Just like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, we could have seen a show that would have likely stood the test of time for bringing an uncompromising auteur’s forward-thinking ideas to the masses. And the fact that Araki was as unabashedly queer in his approach to TV as in his films would have surely made This is How the World Ends a pioneering show for LGBTQ+ representation in a time where queer characters and creators were relegated to the side-lines and treated as mere tokens. With a platform as big as MTV backing him, his ideas could have reached a wide audience of queer kids looking for something that mirrored some of their worries, making a potentially huge impact. Plus, with the increasing visibility and current call for more LGBTQ+ lead products in mainstream culture, and the seeming timelessness of Araki’s work (which is also currently being showcased on the Criterion Channel platform), it seems like a perfect time for a buried oddity like This is How the World Ends to finally resurface.
Even though the year 2000 was probably too soon for us to get the version of This is How The World Ends we should have got, nothing stops us right now from discovering this pilot and dream about what could have been. And luckily, this wasn’t Araki’s last foray into television. After directing loose episodes of shows like Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why, as lately as last year, he directed, produced and co-wrote a season of a show called Now, Apocalypse for the Starz channel in the U.S. It may not be the radical and off-kilter portrayal of disaffected youth that This is How the World Ends is, but it retains a lot of the same ideas Araki has worked with his entire career. We shouldn’t let this man’s unique voice, especially pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community go unsung, and a gem like This is How the World Ends go undiscovered.
You can watch the This is How the World Ends free on YouTube here.