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The allure of pulp nonfiction

'I Shouldn't Be Alive' grabs viewers and dares them to stop watching the gory details.

October 28, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

There are those in America -- guilty, Your Honor -- who often watch television while dining. This is, after all, the land of the TV dinner.

But those who consume mass media with their vittles should avoid the new Discovery Channel series "I Shouldn't Be Alive," whose first episode airs tonight, a ghastly, grisly and yet pruriently gripping account of what happened when five people got lost at sea in a rubber dinghy amid a violent storm.

What happened was injury, dehydration, sunstroke, staph infections, hallucinations and swarming great whites. Cannibalism was on the list briefly. The first show, "Shark Survivor," is big on graphically showing the deterioration of the human corpus. "Without enough water to make urine, toxins are building up in his bloodstream," the narrator says of one of the souls in peril.

In coming weeks the series will deal with a family trapped in the snow, travelers lost in the Amazon, another lost-at-sea adventure and a kidnapping by the Khmer Rouge. The stories are said to be true. Call it the thinking man's "Fear Factor."

"Shark" is the brainchild of veteran filmmaker John Smithson, who knows how to grab an audience by the throat. His 2003 film "Touching the Void" was a harrowing account of two climbers in the Peruvian Andes. The goal is verisimilitude and "Shark" -- filmed in good measure in an immense tank in the Republic of Malta -- delivers, complete with graphics and pictures of a beating heart. Interviews with survivors are stitched in with a dramatic re-creation.

The three men and two women were sailing a luxury yacht on a 1,300-mile trip from Florida to Maine. In fast order, everything went wrong, and the five were adrift in an angry sea in a dinghy without food or water.

At first, the "Shark" episode may get a "yuck" reaction. But soon the edge-of-death drama becomes real. "We were sitting there watching Meg die," one survivor says.

It's clear that not all of the five will survive. Wondering who will die and how and when they might expire is meant to be part of the appeal of "I Shouldn't Be Alive."

If "Shark" were words on a page, it would probably be branded as pulp. Yes, but highly engrossing, verging on can't-put-it-down pulp. No need for profound insights into the human condition.

"There is never a day when you're more thankful for life than the day you almost die," says a survivor.

That's true enough, probably, but not much in comparison with the white-light-hosts-ofangels stuff that is common with people relating their near-death experiences.

What is the entertainment or news value of watching one-dimensional people fight for their lives? If you know, give a call. Just not at dinnertime.


'I Shouldn't Be Alive'

Where: Discovery Channel

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

Deborah Scaling Kiley...self

Brad Cavanagh...self

Executive producer Jack Smith. Co-executive producers John Smithson and Adelene Alani.

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