Dragged out

Jason Donovan, Hugh Sheridan and Stephan Elliott host Channel Ten's <I>I Will Survive</I>.
Jason Donovan, Hugh Sheridan and Stephan Elliott host Channel Ten's I Will Survive.

I PITY the guy who sidled up to his workplace water cooler hoping to dissect the previous night's episode of I Will Survive, only for the conversational gambit to be met with the blank stares and bemused silence of colleagues who use such failed exchanges as evidence of corporate incompatibility, and which entrenches our protagonist's feelings of existential isolation. Sure, it's a niche sympathy but I am nothing if not acutely sensitive to the loneliness of imaginary characters.

I certainly know how he feels; I haven't been able to talk about I Will Survive with anyone. People who haven't seen the show tell me they don't know what it is, and after watching four episodes, I tend to agree.

The ostensible premise is to find ''Australia's next triple-threat superstar'', which sounds mightily ambitious until you realise the benchmark is Jason Donovan. The search for this ''consummate entertainer with Broadway in his DNA'' is so messy and confused that I resent exerting brain power trying to decipher something that should be brainless.

I understand how I Will Survive came to be: it's based on a proven product (''Forget rehashing TV; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was iconic - let's cash in on a movie!''); it capitalises on the appeal of talent shows (''People love singing shows, and dancing shows. What about a singing and dancing show?''); it dabbles in the reality genre (''What if contestants live and rehearse together and we capture the drama?''); it's a travel show (''We can stop at seven country towns for a few nights and excite the locals!''). On paper, it has all the ingredients. Literally, all of them. They emptied the pantry into this program, with the unfortunate result that nobody has come for dinner.

The 12 performers must ''survive a 4000-kilometre bus trip, inspired by Priscilla''. Survive? The bus is going to Alice Springs, not Afghanistan. The three-month tour is a drag-queen boot camp in preparation for the main prize - the ''chance'' to perform on Broadway in the role of Tick, as played in the movie by Hugo Weaving.

Except the Broadway production closed down this year, which, pardon my French, has f---ed the whole raison d'etre. There is no attempt to glamorise what the contestants are aiming for because what they're aiming for has disappeared. To compensate for the uncertainty, the victor gets $250,000, management in the US and a month's accommodation in New York. In this economy, the best a performer can hope for is the chance to win the opportunity to audition for a gig.

When the Priscilla bus rolls into town, contestants participate in activities that will supposedly fortify them for a possible future as a mega-famous leading man. They head to a clay target range because, as the voice-over explains, ''There's more to being a triple-threat than heels and make-up. Like Hugh Jackman and John Travolta, sometimes you just need to know how to look tough around guns.''

After a few squeals at the firearm's recoil, they play a touch rugby game of no consequence; they clown around during the task of using a pick-up line on an actress who nurses a glass of bubbly alone in a pub; they're instructed to disclose on television a truth about themselves that they have never told anybody before, which ends in tears about running from fights and bed-wetting; they give interviews while perched on horrendous floral bedspreads in starkly lit rooms; the host delivers lines with undergraduate solemnity, and the contestants laugh at him, and the tone is grievously incoherent with no compelling narrative that these are the hard yards to Broadway success.

The program calls in favours from big-name guest judges, who provide entertaining input alongside Donovan and Priscilla creator Stephan Elliott. The crew who worked on the movie and West End production help put together some impressive stage numbers, but these set-pieces cannot sustain the whole.

Performers are not inherently interesting. They're supposed to be interesting on stage; that's why it's called show business. For me, there's too much exposure of what happens behind the curtain and too much deconstruction by those who should be constructing. I am sick of watching and listening to how the sausage is made. I just want to eat the damned sausage.

The fear is that networks will make mistaken conclusions about why the program didn't find an audience. Free-spirited men in drag is the most vibrant element of the format.

The signature song, I Will Survive, has always struck me as unconvincing in its defiance - more the vocalised aspiration of the insecure, one shaky chorus away from a public meltdown. TV's I Will Survive is really an imitation of a talent show, described as offbeat but more in the wrong key.

Follow Daniel Burt on Twitter @trubnad.

This story Dragged out first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.