To switch on any of the better programs composing the Discovery Channel’s 20th annual Shark Week while simultaneously getting the fan going at the correct angle is a choice late-July experience. In the ripple of the breeze, you admire the sea dogs slithering through the blue water and look at the groups of healthful humans beaming in the sun and take in some simple popular science, and it’s all wonderfully refreshing—as cool as a day at the pool. That would be a shark-infested pool, true, but you take what you can get this time of year.
It was therefore a horrible disappointment to turn on Ocean of Fear, the original film Discovery premiered last night, and catch Shark Week in the act of jumping itself. A quasi-documentary—a quasi-movie, for that matter—Ocean of Fear is a tribute to near-absolute ineptitude. It would be a great counterexample for film students. First lesson: If your project generally exhibits the technical polish and intellectual sensitivity of an Ed Wood film, you are not doing any favors by leading off with a scene directed by Steven Spielberg.
Richard Dreyfuss gets up the nerve to ask, “You were on the Indianapolis?” and then Roy Scheider glints, “What happened?” and then Robert Shaw says, “Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into her side, Chief,” and tosses his cap aside without caring to watch it fall. And then Dreyfuss himself—an actor who may or may not deserve better gigs—begins narrating the Discovery show: “Thanks to the classic movie Jaws, the story of the Indianapolis is known to millions as the worst shark attack of all time. … Four days and five nights of drowning, thirst, and madness.” Historians say that 900 sailors from the U.S. Navy went overboard in the Philippine Sea that day in 1945, but the budget of Ocean of Fear is such that we see only 10 or 12 at a time in its interminable and murky re-enactment. Though these scenes are comically horrible, about a half-hour in, the producers get up the nerve to juxtapose their fabricated shlock with recent interviews with survivors. Thus, Ocean of Fear—heretofore merely an insult to the memory of the dead—finds a fascinating way to insult the living, too.
To go slightly downhill from there, check your local listings for Sharks: A Family Affair—an Osbournes for the selachimorphiphiliac set. It finds shark expert Craig Ferreira gearing up a vacation with his family of five in South Africa’s Shark Alley, notorious for its concentration of great whites. “In preparation for the trip, Craig has a surprise for his children,” says the anemic narrator. “Craig wants his boys to observe sharks on their own terms, and to do this, he has designed the first-ever children’s shark cage.” On the preview reel, Craig unloads the cage in his driveway and his wife says, “That. Is. Awesome.”
“The boys are very excited,” Craig says. I won’t argue the point: Once the cage was settled in the backyard hot tub, and the boys were caged in it, they scampered about like monkeys on a jungle gym. But the sober narrator intervened to remind us that this isn’t all fun and games: “Once out at sea, it will be a big psychological challenge for the boys.” Adding depth to the daddy issues, we have Craig’s father, Theo, said to hold the world record for single-handedly killing great whites. Theo is a touch saddened to say that he approves of the work Craig put into the cage: “It’s far better than I’d thought it’d be. … I came here to criticize.” Wouldn’t it be great if you own parents were that straightforward?
After you’ve finished writing an appalled letter to the network—One Discovery Place, Silver Spring, Md., 20910 *—try to get your head around Sharkman, which features a dude who has “found the key to opening people’s eyes” to the true souls of sharks: “shark hypnosis.” Having failed to get your head around that, check in with the stately tiger shark on Deadly Stripes. Some Shark Week programs encourage you to fear the shark while others urge you to recognize the sweet nature hidden beneath its fearsome reputation, but Deadly Stripes has it both ways, first cluing us in to the tiger shark’s eating habits (“its highly predatory, voracious, almost indiscriminate appetite”), then introducing to us “a man who is helping to show us a different side to this so-called maneater.”
If you’re a hammerhead man, you’ll do well with Perfect Predator, which stars that phallus dentatus of a sea beast and, like Deadly Stripes, also co-stars a narrator who doesn’t listen to what he’s saying. We’re all onboard as evolutionists here, but Discovery likes a quest, so, amid techno-espionage graphics recalling Enemy of the State, the show tries to manufacture a story line about whether that funky head is “a help or a hindrance.” Which would you guess? And why do producers think we want Shark Week to go heavy on narrative anyway? Why bother with a story arc when sharks are nearby, opening wide?