We Build Fish Mansions
Fish Tank Kings, premiering on 12 May, resembles the other documentary-lite shows on Nat Geo Wild. Like The Dog Whisperer, Alaska State Troopers, and Border Wars (about Homeland Security agents), Kings depicts men at work: men shaking hands, solving problems, expressing their frustrations to and about their co-workers in grunts and mutters.
The man in Fish Tank Kings is Mat Roy, an affable, well-tanned man with thick salt-and-pepper hair. The owner of Living Color Aquariums in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, his motto is, “We don’t build fish bowls, we build fish mansions.” The six-episode first season—premiering 12 May—shows him supervising the construction of lavish, customized aquariums for a variety of clients in the South Florida region. The bulk of the assembly is done by Mat’s multiracial team, labeled by the show as “Right-Hand Man,” “Creative Force,” “The Muscle,” and “Fish Geek.” Each episode follows one or two projects from idea to installation, exploring aquarium design, construction, and display from multiple perspectives.
The clash of priorities that emerges during this process can be fascinating. It’s certainly more interesting than the artificial clash of personalities the show exaggerates, but it also omits one crucial perspective, one that considers the welfare of the fish.
The series begins with a bang, showcasing an extremely high profile and controversial project, the creation and installation of enormous aquariums behind the backstop in the Miami Marlins’ new stadium. This exotic project, enormous in scale, with massive potential for either launching or damaging the small firm’s reputation, makes for a dramatic premise. Every project comes with the usual difficulties, from balancing clients’ desires with their budgets and working around the limitations of various materials, to jockeying among coworkers for control. This one brings other challenges too, like protecting the fish from 100mph fastballs, reducing glare to avoid distracting players, and decreasing vibrations made by crowd noise. Living Color’s success is a foregone conclusion, but it’s still entertaining to see Mat and his team put through their paces, especially by the flamboyant, exacting David Samson, the Miami Marlins’ President.
This assignment begins as Mat looks for a transparent material that won’t crack or scratch when hit by soaring baseballs. Creative Force creates luscious 20-foot-long coral reef bouquets. Fish Geek, a finicky marine biologist, complains about California reefs being included in the Miami-themed display and the fish population being entirely carnivorous. When a representative from the Miami Marlins demands that the pink reefs be removed, to which Mat replies, “Pink is practically the city’s official color!”
There’s more than enough narrative twists and turns during the long process of constructing each aquarium, which is why Fish Tank Kings’ reality-show clichés are such letdowns. Like most specimens of its genus, this one repeats basic plot points after commercial breaks and features awkward line readings by cast members, prompted by teleprompters. Obscure fish facts occasionally pop up on screen, likely to interest only die-hard icthyophiles. And, of course, small tiffs between coworkers get blown out of proportion, with certain scenes afforded slo-mo replays set to ominous music. These “dramatic” moments feel all the sillier because it’s clear from other scenes that the team not only works together well enough to create its exquisite living exhibitions, but also that the employees enjoy each other’s company, with minimal macho blustering.
Worse, the dumbing down affects how we understand the project details. Despite Mat’s constant barking at his employees about imminent deadlines, the show offers very little sense of the time span of each project. And, as with most project-centered reality shows, Fish Tank Kings suffers from the lack of information about events after the Big Reveal. How do they keep the fish from eating one another, or the coral from dying? How do the fish react when baseballs do hit their aquarium? (Not well, say animal rights activists.)
The show overlooks these crucial questions. Neither does it address what seems a core concern for Living Color generally, how anyone involved thinks about the animals whose lives they’re shaping, from the clients to the aquarists. No one asks why customers might want aquariums in their homes or workplaces in the first place—though the second episode, titled “Pimp My Tank,” suggests a disenchanting answer. The show features two jobs: Mat goes to the Caribbean in search of exotic deep-sea fish for Tampa’s Florida Aquarium, while his crew scrambles to build a 3,000-gallon cylindrical shark tank for a new pet store opening. Both the clients in this episode appear driven by a desire to acquire, collect, possess, and display. In other words, they treat the fish as rare commodities, to exhibit at the Aquarium and even more dispiritingly, as decoration at the store.
The fish, coral reefs, and exhibitions Living Color gathers and assembles are undeniably beautiful, but the whole endeavor starts to feel cruelly indifferent, even abusive, toward the fish. Cramped in the close quarters of the aquarium exhibit, the recently captured deep-sea fish start cannibalizing each other almost immediately, and the baby shark at the pet store almost dies from breathing in its own waste while swimming in a cardboard box for a prolonged period during shipping. It’s all fine and well to admire the beauty of a gilded cage, as long as one recognizes that the loveliness of the object matters not at all to the animals inside it.