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'Surviving Disaster' seeks to empower

Spike TV's new infotainment show, starring Cade Courtley, offers action-packed tutorials in how to live through crises.

September 01, 2009|Susan Carpenter

I was several floors up in a burning high-rise, trapped with hundreds of other panicked co-workers who couldn't find an easy escape. The halls were filling with smoke, as were the stairwells, so I took the only obvious way out. I stepped into an elevator -- and plummeted to a fiery, premature death.

Or so it was meant to seem. In truth, I was just acting. I was an extra on the set of an elaborate pyrotechnic simulation that makes up the escape-from-fire episode of a Spike TV show, "Surviving Disaster," that premieres tonight at 10.

The latest high-octane infotainment program to hit the testosterone-fueled cable network, "Surviving Disaster" is half reality TV, half scripted narrative -- a program that takes advantage of the country's high anxiety and enthusiasm for preparedness while striving to live up to its name. Scary times, it seems, beget scary programming, only with this show there's a twist.

"What we're aiming to be is empowering," said Sharon Levy, senior vice president of development for Spike's alternative programming. "Do not be afraid. Do not shrink in the corner and cover your eyes and hope for the best."

Just sit back, relax and, if you're in the 18-to-34 demo, crack a beer and take notes.

The program was originally entitled "Surviving Terrorism," but that Al Qaeda-esque idea was chucked in favor of a show "that was broad enough to encapsulate all of the types of disasters that you would have to face," said Levy.

So, in addition to an episode that shows viewers how to survive a dirty bomb, they'll get action-packed tutorials in how to live through hurricanes, earthquakes, airplane hijackings, avalanches -- and fires.

The building that supposedly burned me to a crisp was never in flames, however. It was fogged by hand. A building was burned for this episode. It just wasn't the one I was standing in. The fire that ultimately engulfed me was a computer-generated aftereffect.

That's because "Surviving Disaster" uses "dramatic reconstructions" for most of the action. Produced by Britain-based company Wall to Wall (which won an Oscar earlier this year for its documentary "Man on Wire"), the show was designed to "look a little bit like a CNN reporter who's embedded in Baghdad with the war going on around him," said Alex Graham, the Wall to Wall chief executive who is also executive producing "Surviving Disaster."

Instead of that CNN reporter, viewers of Spike's latest get Cade Courtley -- a charismatic ex-Navy SEAL with Paul Newman eyes and clubs for biceps. Courtley, 39, was selected after sending an audition tape from Baghdad, during which he videotaped himself driving a Humvee with improvised explosive devices going off around him.

"I don't know everything there is to know about fire science," admitted Courtley, during a catered lunch on the ground floor of a building that was definitely not on fire. During his training as a SEAL, Courtley said, he didn't sleep for six days straight and consumed 20,000 calories a day, but "I've never been in a hurricane."

Courtley's job is only to present information, which he does with masculine, yet actorly, aplomb. Scruffily chic, with a one-day shadow and mousse-mussed hair, Courtley is convincing in his hero role. He delivers his lines as if he actually were in the line of fire, and leads his supporting actors as if he really were charged with their care.

While Courtley is the show's star for 30 of its 43 minutes, there's expert commentary. Intercut with the dramatic simulations of derring-do, there's also real footage of real disasters and the real people who've survived them, apparently in an effort to put more "real" in this entirely scripted reality show designed to blur the lines between entertainment and useful information.

"There's this notion that reality TV is either intelligent, in which case it's on PBS and nobody watches it, or it's somewhere else and it's dumb," said Graham. Wall to Wall was the production company behind "Frontier House," the PBS "hit" that sent three modern-day families to live in a re-creation of 1883 Montana in a sort of historical soap opera. "The best television, you don't have to choose between entertainment and information. The best kind of television can do both."

In my 2 1/2 hours as an extra, Graham's point was well taken. I was enormously entertained by Courtley, who tends to end his messed-up takes with deadpan tailspins into profanity, and I also learned a lot.

For instance, I will never, ever step into an elevator when a building is on fire. And I will never, ever again act.


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