Extreme Television

I Shouldn’t Be Alive recounts real-life survival stories with harrowing precision.

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The new Discovery Science Channel series with the impressively grabby title I Shouldn’t Be Alive (premiering tonight at 9 p.m. ET) was co-created by John Smithson, who also produced the 2003 feature film Touching the Void. For anyone who’s seen Touching the Void, that alone should be reason enough to give the show a chance. That movie turned the true story of a disastrous two-person mountain climbing expedition in the Andes into an almost sickeningly suspenseful saga of loyalty, betrayal, guilt, and the human instinct to survive.

I Shouldn’t Be Alive uses the same storytelling technique as Touching the Void: present-day interviews with the survivors of each ordeal are intercut with minimalist re-enactments of the events. The actors playing the survivor’s younger (and usually stupider) selves basically function as posable action figures, their choices and motivations understood through the voice-over rather than through dialogue. In tonight’s premiere episode, “Shark Survivor,” the five-person crew of a yacht sailing from Maine to Florida undergoes an unbelievable ordeal after their boat sinks in a storm at sea. 

First, their fully equipped survival raft, stocked with flares, food, and fresh water, is ripped from the skipper’s hands and carried away by the waves, leaving only an inflatable rubber dinghy with no supplies at all. As two of the five tread water alongside the dinghy, one of them snarls to the other, “Stop kicking me.” “I’m not kicking you,” responds the first, and in a double take that’s both grisly and funny, both of them realize that they’re being bumped by the noses of circling sharks. They scramble into the dinghy pronto, beginning a five-day ordeal of floating aimlessly, without food, water, or any means of signaling to passing ships, as one woman’s bone-deep wounds, sustained when the rigging of the sinking ship lashed her legs, begin to fester.

In a scene straight out of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” two of the men make the desperate choice to drink seawater, only to succumb to a dehydration-induced psychosis that has them hallucinating and spouting gibberish. Slowly the viewer begins to realize that, gee, only two of the five real-life crew members have appeared onscreen to share their memories. As we learn, one by one, the miserable fate of the other three, the sense of loneliness and despair becomes almost unbearable.

This show has taken some critical heat for its low production values and the over-the-top acting in the re-enactment segments, but it seems to me that these complaints miss the point. Sure, the re-enactment technique is cheesy by its very nature, but at the heart of this show is the ancient art of storytelling. The verbal accounts of the survivors are so vibrant, their evocation of extreme experience so precise, that the viewer huddles before the TV like a child listening to ghost stories around a campfire, undistracted even by the indignity of commercial interruptions.

The producers did make one terrible aesthetic choice: the occasional CSI-style animated shots in which the camera zooms into the human body to illustrate the changes taking place in the survivors’ physiology. There’s Adrenaline-cam! Trenchfoot-cam! Gangrene-cam! And in one particularly regrettable moment, Interior-of-Shark-Nose-cam! We don’t need a tour of the nubbinlike olfactory sensors in a shark’s snout to know that, if you’re stranded at sea with several dozen of them and an open gash in your leg, you have significant reason for concern. I Shouldn’t Be Alive doesn’t need to borrow techniques from pop forensics shows to drive home the terror of the life-and-death situations it recounts. These stories already benefit from the scariest special effect of all: They’re true.