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'Make It out Alive' Often Goes Too Far to Make Its Point
October 15, 2017  | By David Hinckley

The raw stories of human survival, or sometimes failure to survive, give Smithsonian’s new Make It Out Alive series a dramatic edge that’s hard to resist.

So you keep watching Make It Out Alive, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Smithsonian, in spite of the overheated packaging in which those stories are delivered.

The six-part series revisits major disasters in which dozens or hundreds of people were killed, like the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis (below).

That invariably means dozens or hundreds of other people were almost killed, and Smithsonian producer Edward Hart focuses on a half dozen people whose fate could have gone either way.

Sometimes it hinged on the most random little happenstance. Other times the outcome seems more predetermined.

Hart wisely shows people from both sides. Some make it, and some don’t, and the show doesn’t tip its hand too early on which subjects fall where.

In any case, since the stakes are obviously so high, it’s hard not to feel an almost instant connection with these people. Hart and his team do a good job of humanizing them, showing us how in most cases they were just regular people doing a regular job and suddenly were caught up in natural or man-made forces that could end everything right there.

The premiere episode covers the 1980 explosion of the Mount St. Helens volcano (top) in Washington state. It erupted with the force of 27,000 atomic bombs, a number so large it almost means nothing except it’s clear you didn’t want to be anywhere near it.

Since the explosion was expected, most people in the projected path of its deadliest emissions had been evacuated.

A few chose to stay, including a World War I veteran (right) who had lived on the mountain for 50 years and wasn’t going anywhere. Others, mostly scientists, were there to record the event at what they knew was close range, but hoped was out of the lethal zone.

Others didn’t know they were in danger, including a logging crew that had been told it was well out of explosion range, and some weekend campers who also seemed to be clear of any potential eruption fallout.

The explosion proved more powerful and far-reaching than anyone predicted.

Ash, debris and superheated air rushed down the mountain at up to 400 miles an hour, searing or leveling everything in its path, including people.

Snowpacks melted by the heat of the volcano created a series of floods, with water high and deep enough to pick up things like whole railroad bridges. One flood washed over our campers, like a tsunami.

Zeroing in on individual drama is a good way to humanize disaster stories that otherwise seem almost too overwhelming to comprehend. We’ve seen that with this summer’s real-life disasters, from hurricanes to wildfires.

Hart and Smithsonian have done their jobs in finding these folks and distilling their stories into compact yet three-dimensional dramas.

The only problem is that someone doesn’t seem to think the drama is enough.

The stories are layered with ominous music. Silent actors gesture and contort their faces in melodramatic re-creations.

And then there are the voiceovers, straight out of Victorian novels: “Trapped in a volcanic nightmare, who if any would make it out alive?” “With an earth-shattering explosion, the terror begins.” “Alone in the dark, eerie silence, Keith has time to wonder if this is the end.”

Yes, this is the way TV tells these stories these days, and maybe it’s what viewers want, or have come to expect.

But the stories are good enough, so they don’t need the purple prose. In fact, a calm approach might even serve them better. Maybe Smithsonian TV could take a cue from the Smithsonian Institute.

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