Not-So-Great White

Has Shark Week finally jumped the shark?

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For shark fanatics, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s ode to Carcharodon carcharias, Carcharhinus leucas, and their cousins at the top of the food chain, has come around again with the promise of seven days of pure predatory bliss. I’m pretty much Shark Week’s target audience: I clip and save reports of attacks and sightings from around the world; when I’m at the beach, I make sure to scan for the prime feeding spots. This year, I’ve been on the couch for all seven prime-time hours. I can smell the chum. I can almost taste the blood. But I’m still waiting to see the sharks.

Take Monday night’s offering, “Shark House.” In this special shark-themed episode of Discovery’s home improvement show Monster House, we watch a dumpy residence transform into a mini-Sea World as it slowly accumulates shark mobiles and shark fin coffee tables. Only stock-footage sharks swim by. And though we are given ample technical detail about how one constructs an entertainment center out of a battered shark cage, no one thinks to mention the reason the cage was invented in the first place—the mythical predator known as White Death.

In its glory days, Shark Week concentrated on the migration patterns and hunting strategies of Great Whites rather than the welding techniques of guys who fashion couches that look like coral reefs. Discovery’s devotion to these magnificent animals was responsible for making millions aware of the critical role sharks play in keeping fish populations in balance and the endangerment they face due to overfishing. (The channel also increased awareness that you could get your limbs torn asunder by a set of viselike jaws.) But to the great distress of fauna fans, viewers can no longer flip to Discovery and be guaranteed a few hours of nature, red in tooth and claw.

Shark Week might be in its 17th year, but the franchise isn’t immune to cable’s obsession with talking heads and giant machines. Shows like Monster House are part of the schedule because viewers enjoy recurring personalities, says Discovery spokesperson Matt Katzive. “Elephants can’t talk,” he notes. Wildlife shows, especially those featuring dangerous and reclusive animals difficult to capture on film, are also expensive, hemorrhaging billable shooting days. Controlled shoots taking place in a well-lit garage are simple and cheap. You can blame the iffy economy for shows like “Shark House” and last year’s Anatomy of a Shark Bite, which documented the construction of a metallic shark with pressurized jaws.

But what’s more unforgivable is the blatant misuse of Shark Week’s sacred keynote slot. The opening Sunday night position has always been reserved for pulse-pounding gems like Great White Attack—A True Story and Sharks of the Atlantic. This year, opening night went to Primal Scream, a glorified60-minute infomercial for the upcoming lost-at-sea thriller Open Water. The channel had already commissioned a similar program retelling the experience of Valerie De La Valdene, a diver who found herself alone in the drink off the Galapagos Islands a decade ago, so when Discovery honchos got wind of the indie film’s strong buzz at Sundance, the tie-in temptation was apparently too strong to resist.

They should have resisted. Primal Scream, which combines De La Valdene’s shaky, hand-held footage with scenes from Open Water, spins an inspiring tale of survival—but there aren’t enough sharks in it. The only fins in sight are blurry and off in the distance; anyone tuning in to see the goliaths of the deep would have been better served by flipping to Bravo and catching the animatronic creature in Jaws 2.

After all these years, has Discovery just run out of ways to show sharks swimming around? While it’s hard to imagine a show in years to come that will have the impact of the groundbreaking Air Jaws, with its images of mammoth white sharks breaching the water like missiles, the documentary Great White Shark: Uncaged (which aired Tuesday) shows Shark Week can still soar when it wants to. The extraordinary footage shows South African diver Andre Hartman not only swimming with whites off Baja, but actually grabbing on to dorsal fins and getting pulled along—a naturalist’s version of the old Nantucket sleigh ride. There’s no grafting steel, no outlaw attitude, not even any movie tie-ins. There’s just shark after shark after shark—and that’s enough.