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Reenactments almost kill 'I Shouldn't Be Alive'

''I Shouldn't Be Alive" ought to make ''Survivor" look like a backyard game of Twister. This adventure series chronicles the kind of hunger, dehydration, and psychological strain that would send Jeff Probst's fame hogs gunning for the medical tent. About real people who've survived battles with nature, ''I Shouldn't Be Alive" aims to give us a fact-based disaster movie every week, from the first signs of frostbitten despair to the sunny triumph of the human spirit at the closing credits.

Alas, the show is loaded with reenactments. Long reenactments featuring acting that plays like a scene-study class with a big budget for fake blood. The show, which premieres tonight at 9 on the Discovery Channel, relies so heavily on these amateurish re-creations that it undermines its otherwise mind-blowing survival stories. Generally speaking, documentary reenactments of true events are distracting at best. Here, they seem to bury the extreme drama under an avalanche of cheese chunks. They seriously compromise the show's potential to shock and move us with worst-case scenarios.

Tonight's episode tells the awesome story of two women and three men who set sail in 1982 from Bar Harbor, Maine, for Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a yacht named the Trashman. Early on, the boat is pounded by a storm which leaves them with no engine, no sails, and finally, when a cabin window breaks, no boat. The five quickly make it onto an inflatable rubber dinghy, all of them unharmed except Meg, who is bleeding from bone-deep wounds. But as the days stretch on, each person becomes increasingly sapped and broken.

They try to keep warm by overturning the dinghy and huddling together underneath. But, well, those little taps on the toes? Who knew sharks liked to play footsie? So they wait it out in the tiny boat, as infection spreads among them and alliances form. Two of the men drink ocean water, a mistake that causes nightmarish hallucinations in an already nightmarish situation. And things continue to go from bad to worse, as the sharks succeed in having a human snack or two and as the ailing Meg begins to go mad and speak in tongues.

The reenactments are interwoven with interviews with two of the Trashman five, and those segments work best. They're just talking-head bits, but nonetheless compelling as the survivors' eyes become electrified by memories of their story. They've obviously gone over the events many times, and yet they still convey them with pure intensity and, at moments, emotion. Survivor Deborah Scaling Kiley, who also documented the shipwreck in the book ''Untamed Seas," is particularly driving in her narrative.

But the acting in the reenactments, which fill out most of the ''I Shouldn't Be Alive" hour, is overwrought. The woman playing the injured Meg winds up like a parody of Linda Blair in ''The Exorcist." And the two men having hallucinations behave like extras from ''Reefer Madness." One of them is supposed to be a scraggly, beer-loving skipper, but he looks more like a bratty slacker; the other is meant to be an alcoholic womanizer, but he comes off like a giddy psychopath. All together, they might have been more aptly cast in a ''Gilligan's Island" remake, instead of this harrowing recollection of tragedy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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