TV Skeptic: 'Mermaids: The Body Found' clouds the waters
"Mermaids: The Body Found," which aired over the weekend as part of Animal Planet's "Monster Week," revealed a true TV abomination. An unnatural hybrid that was as disturbing as it was gruesome. A freak whose very existence threatens us all.
I don't mean the creature featured in this new TV special. It's the TV show itself.
"Mermaids," which will air again June 17, is fiction. It's a fake TV documentary. You may have to look hard to see the disclaimer, but the producers and Animal Planet make it clear that this program is totally and completely made up.
At least they almost make it clear. They don't exactly make a distinction between what is real and what is faked, and they really don't seem to care.
As a fake documentary, one might hope that "Mermaids" would follow in the tradition of some of the great "mockumentaries" of film and television. ("This is Spinal Tap"; "Zelig"; "The Rutles" and numerous "Monty Python" skits).
But "Mermaids" doesn't mock anything. Instead, the joke is on us.
The slick program uses a documentary style to tell a fictional crypto-zoological tale of earnest, young and attractive scientists who are investigating whale and dolphin beachings. In so doing, they discover clues of the existence of an intelligent primate species — related to humans — that has evolved to adapt to an aquatic life, just as dolphin and whale ancestors did millions of years ago.
U.S. Navy experiments with sonar are blamed for the massive whale beachings around the world. The scientists soon realize that the Navy is covering up the discovery of strange creatures whose bodies are also damaged by the powerful sonar device.
With fake news broadcasts; fake amateur video and fake expert interviews, the story lays out a fake conspiracy worthy of the "X-Files." Here, the Navy is so determined to develop their sonar technology that they're prepared to drive to extinction an intelligent species related to humans. (Wouldn't the Navy be more likely to try to weaponize such a discovery, as in "Day of the Dolphin"?)
As the scientists investigate the whale beachings and put the puzzle together piece by piece they seem to remain one step behind the Navy's massive cover-up. Until they get their big break: fake video from a camera phone.
Just as Bigfoot is often given supernatural and noble attributes in popular culture, "Mermaids" embodies the new species with intelligence, altruism and compassion. These mermaids make tools. They're pals with dolphins, with whom they often hunt or play together in the surf. They also hunt great white sharks.
It's remarkable how well this fake documentary mimics actual programs claiming to reveal actual creatures. Substitute Mermaids for Bigfoot, Chupacabra, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts and aliens and it's hard to make a distinction between what's real but faked, and what's really fake.
While this production won't fool many skeptics (at least I hope not), I can only imagine that the same audiences that lap up shows about Bigfoot, ghosts, psychics, etc. will miss the disclaimers and buy into this one too. Mermaids could be the new Nessy.
-- Ed Stockly
Photo: A scene from "Mermaids: The Body Found" Credit: Animal Planet