Even after he reluctantly agreed to join an experiment in which the Discovery Channel plopped 10 participants into a re-creation of Armageddon, George Fallieras never thought he would actually fall for it.
But then he stepped onto the set of The Colony, helping carry more than 200 pounds of supplies 8 miles down the Los Angeles River to a deserted 80,000-square-foot warehouse. That's where he'd spend the next eight weeks.
No expense had been spared to make the space feel like the aftermath of a viral outbreak that had eliminated most human life — down to Mad Max-style "marauders" hired to steal supplies.
That's when Fallieras, 34, a physician raised in Tampa who has a marine biology degree from the University of Florida, felt the lines blur between reality and their concocted situation.
"There was a time or two when I had to exercise restraint, not to physically harm one of the marauders," said Fallieras. "I thought to myself, 'I'm into this a lot more than I thought I was going to be.’ "
On the surface, it may seem like an outlandish proposition: Can a cable channel known mostly for filming real action actually make 10 participants react the way people might respond if they were close to the only folks left on Earth?
"The people you think are weak and are going to fail find this inner strength that they use to ground the group," said Adam Montella, a Tampa expert on disaster preparation and recovery who wound up advising producers on how to re-create the conditions of a mass calamity. "The people who come on strong are sometimes the people who need the most help. They were like a large family."
Ask about the risks in such a setup, and executive produce Thom Beers — the mind behind unscripted hits such as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers — likes to tell a story about filming a beached boat in a storm, only to discover bears had trudged down to invade their nearby camp.
Hiding on the boat, Beers saw a note scrawled on its side: "If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space."
So for Beers, it made perfect sense that he would unleash a gang of grungy-looking actors on his crew of colonists. But how did he make it work?
Fallieras and nine others were in a room for 30 hours, kept awake by an air horn and shown videos of post-apocalyptic films. After becoming tired and frazzled, they were released in an abandoned department store for 15 minutes to forage supplies before a band of "marauders" chased them.
In the first episode, six participants make their way to the colony, where they discover they have no potable water, no electricity and a small amount of food. Soon, they've welcomed four others sent in later, figured out how to filter the polluted river water and hooked up a collection of car batteries to provide power.
You don't get many details from any folks involved with the show — there's too much concern about giving away crucial plot points. But Beers insists most of the show's participants "would have gone back (to the colony) tomorrow" because of the lessons they learned.
Fallieras, a Chamberlain High graduate who describes his childhood in Tampa as "charmed," agreed with Beers, noting the environment awakened something in him.
"By having all those excesses stripped away, I felt a really raw pleasantness," he said, pausing to find the right words. "Those excesses, I think, can contribute to internal human anxiety. With all that taken away, we could have a little more clarity … transcend certain trivial matters of existence."