Rooting For the Monster
The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week returns starting 31 July—and again it’s serving up a lot of underwater carnage, throaty voice-overs, and menacing theme music. This year, however, the fun stalls even more quickly than usual.
While there’s no getting around the beauty of the underwater footage, the series is spoiled by reality TV thrills. Shark Week isn’t meant to be educational or informative, but rather a nature-doc equivalent of COPS or Ghost Hunters International. But this misses an opportunity. Rather than an interesting show in its own right, Shark Week is evolving into yet another low point in exploitation TV.
Of course, it can’t be easy to craft a documentary about sharks. One of the problems is that not very much is known about these animals. As the gravelly voiceover goes to great pains to inform its viewer, sharks are extremely hard to study, and what little scientists have found out tends to confuse rather than enlighten. Sharks are famous for having to maintain constant underwater motion to stay alive, and their migratory patterns can be unpredictable. They feed constantly, especially on cute, harmless seals. With cold, black eyes and rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth, sharks are like nature’s counterpoint to the friendly, intelligent dolphin—which, incidentally, they also sometimes eat.
But there is a difference between what is unknown by science and what is sensationally deemed “mysterious” in terms of a reality TV narrative. In short, Shark Week focuses too much on the human perspective, which isn’t half as interesting as would be that of the animal itself. The life of the shark is so dramatic, a single camera following it around as it does its bloody business would have been much better than diverting attention to people, who are, in this context, just another species vying for survival. Shark Week puts too much emphasis on the efforts of beach communities trying to deal with their shadowy menace and never attempts to tell the shark’s story.
In each episode, sharks are described as almost mythological predators. Storylines are more like Jaws than the films of Jacques Cousteau. This isn’t a simplification of the scientific material for a general audience, but a repurposing of it for the lowest common denominator.
Though the series features breathtaking underwater footage, showcasing displays of raw predatory power, for every clip of a shark gliding through the water, we see five shots of people pointing to the water, holding their hands to their mouths. Another technique, the shark attack reenactment, is also overused. Whenever the voiceover says, “It was just an ordinary day at the beach,” or “Little did they know their summer fun would turn deadly,” we’re a little too primed for the drama to come. The witness then addresses the camera, giving an account of the suddenness of the shark’s appearance and the victim’s helplessness. Interspersed are impressionistic shots of splashing water and flailing limbs. Surviving victims show their horrific scars. The viewer learns the formula very quickly, and by the third or fourth time, even a story about someone nearly being eaten feels ho-hum.
One episode offers an especially hapless bumbler, destined to fall prey to the monster, in Dr. Greg Skomul. A famous marine biologist and shark researcher, he seems here more of an amateur adventurer, blustery and ill equipped. The only people who won’t change the channel after listening to a few minutes of him talk are horror movie fans. The savvy fan can see that the unstoppable force of the shark will soon collide with the immovable object of Dr. Skomul’s dopiness. And do they ever.
Dr. Skomul is called by a harbormaster to scout out the floating carcass of a humpback whale, a draw for all kinds of shark activity. Skomul exudes fan-boyish anticipation while boating out to the site, saying he’s been waiting for an opportunity like this his whole life. But swelling music forebodes something sinister is afoot, and soon after he arrives at the carcass, one of the largest sharks in recorded history shows up. Skomul decides to pursue the world record for the largest shark videotaped from an underwater cage, though something about his high-fiving enthusiasm doesn’t seem quite right. Shouldn’t he be soberer about encountering a lethal animal? What happens after Skomul lowers himself into a rickety cage is chilling, though the director of the episode doesn’t treat his carelessness for what it is. Skomul stumbles out of the situation the same way he stumbled in, narrowly missing becoming the subject of one of those reenactments.
There is a lot to like about Shark Week, particularly in the nature footage. But the editing does not create a compelling narrative, and an underwater threat that would seem impossible to upstage quickly takes a back seat to the ridiculousness of terrorized human beings. In this horror movie, one can’t help rooting a little bit for the monster.