It's easy to dismiss "Doomsday Preppers," which focuses on Americans convinced the end of the world is right around the corner, as yet another cable reality series that encourages viewers to laugh at lunatics.

And then Hurricane Sandy happened. Suddenly, the survivalist who keeps 1,500 cans of food in his basement doesn't seem so crazy.

"Preppers," which returns Tuesday as the National Geographic Channel's top-rated show, isn't the only series with the apocalypse on its mind. "Revolution," in which the lights go out on the entire planet, is NBC's first new hit drama since 2006's "Heroes." Zombies threaten civilization in AMC's "The Walking Dead," the most popular drama on basic cable. One of fall's most ambitious series is "Last Resort," in which a submarine crew may trigger a nuclear war.

One could argue that those shows, along with such movies as "The Hunger Games" and "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," say more about our desire to see the little guy save the day than about our fear that the Mayan calendar might be as accurate as a Swiss watch.

Prepping for disaster

But there's no romanticizing the paranoia that hovers over "Preppers," especially when it features the kind of people you wouldn't mind having as neighbors. The season premiere introduces us to the Southwicks, a Utah family with six kids, friendly manners -- and an impressive collection of haz-mat suits and gas masks.

Braxton Southwick, a Toyota mechanic, is convinced that terrorists will eventually release the smallpox virus in the United States.

"People will be killing each other over a can of corn," he says in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests he's giving directions to the nearest Wendy's.

Southwick has set up an escape center in the nearby mountains and cajoles his family every couple of months to engage in exercises that consist of loading guns, gathering up pet chickens that they'll use for eggs and making sure the trailer they'll use to get to safe shelter has enough bottled water to quench an elephant herd. It's only slightly more intense than the fire drills that Cliff Huxtable conducted on "The Cosby Show."

Perhaps that's why the children seem downright sane and sensible. It helps that their mom, Kara Southwick, treats her husband's "hobby" like he's going through a mid-life crisis and rolls her eyes when he suggests they solve a potential milk shortage by buying a goat.

The fact that this modern-day "Brady Bunch" doesn't treat their preparations like a hunt for Bigfoot makes this nightmare scenario all the more realistic -- and 10 times as scary.

Comic relief

What's not as frightening are the survivalists who seem to think "Dr. Strangelove" was a documentary.

Missouri teenager Jason Beacham has been preparing for anarchy since he was 8. He steals canned goods from the family groceries. He keeps a gas mask in his school locker. He makes his own weapons, including a "Macebat," a baseball bat with long nails hammered into the wood. Even eerier, he suggests to his mother that he might abandon her when the world goes haywire, because it'll be easier for him to make it on his own.

"I'm not afraid to kill," he says with dead eyes in a monotone.

This kid doesn't need a survival plan; he needs a spanking.

Then there's "Big Al," a Nashville music producer who is convinced that the Russians are coming. He's built an underground shelter in the woods where he plans to live on 1,000 gallons of water ("I am not going to drink my own urine"), 10,000 pounds of wood and his misguided anger.

He's even written a song about his belief in an imminent nuclear attack, featuring the immortal line: "You may wish you had a gun / when you can't call 911."

Big Al's rants would generate realistic fears -- in 1962.

For now, the paranoia shared by Big Al and Jason mainly provides comic relief. At least until the next storm comes around. • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin