Holy Mother of Neptune! He Downed That Tuna Slab Like a McNugget!

Media Reviews for Media People: Discovery's Shark Week

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After I buy my old-fashioned datebook thingie every December, I immediately write down several occasions on its pages. Mom and dad's anniversary. Purim. Opening day, both for baseball and Bambi-harpooning season.

'Great White Appetite' is exhibit A for what's gone wrong with Shark Week.
'Great White Appetite' is exhibit A for what's gone wrong with Shark Week. Credit: Discovery
But whereas I inscribe each of these events in block letters, I reserve my best curlicue penmanship, exclamation points and heart-dotted I's for Discovery Channel's Shark Week. Every summer, the network puts its usual mix of zen sunsets and varmint copulation on the shelf and turns over a full week of prime-time programming to the predators. True Darwinian delight ensues.

Much of Shark Week has remained unchanged from the days before it became a pop-culture phenomenon. Most of the shows are steered by a dramatically inclined narrator ("the shark ... they will name ... 39323") with an untraceable accent. Each imminent mandible baring and boat bonking is foreshadowed with an undercurrent of menacing synthesizers. The programs babble a few fast words about conservation before returning to exquisitely captured footage of appetizers-to-be learning painful lessons about the oceanic food chain. It's a formula that has long since been idiot-proofed.

Sadly, this year Shark Week finally got caught up in its own hype. Forget the mammoth ad blitz that preceded it -- of course the network should call attention to its flagship property -- or the dotty "Sharkbook" stab at social networking. For reasons I don't quite understand, Discovery has chosen to inject artificial drama and personality into the rare genre of programming that demands neither.

"Great White Appetite" is exhibit A for what's gone wrong with Shark Week. Instead of dryly delivered shark-alogues from individuals inevitably identified as "migratory experts," "Appetite" presents viewers with himbo vacuousness in the form of host Charles Ingram. A former force recon marine, Ingram seems to have gleaned most of his knowledge about ocean predators from "Shark Tale" and thus comes across as a burlier, slightly less delusional Brian Fellows. His commentary ranges in depth and tone from "Whoo! Did you see that? That was insane!" to "Oh, man, what a rush. That was crazy, dude!" The last thing a smart-minded documentary series needs is a "Jackass" injection.

"Bloody Ocean Swim" similarly gives its audience too little credit. The semi-documentary, which recounts a series of shark attacks in 1916, juxtaposes generic munchy-shark footage with campy reenactments, right down to the superlatively modest beachwear of the era. It conveys the gist of the story, sure, but does so in a manner so weightless that it could air on Discovery Kids.

It doesn't help that the various Shark Week directors and editors have fallen helplessly in love with technology. Obviously the footage looks pristine in high definition, and tchotchkes like underwater microphones add a veneer of you-are-right-there to the proceedings. At the same time, the Shark Week docs sacrifice narrative coherence in the interest of showy visual flourishes, speeding up and slowing down the clips willy-nilly. They try way, way, way too hard to convey excitement, which is already provided in spades by the unaltered footage of jarring seal maulings. I mean, these are sharks with eight-inch carving knives for teeth and Baldwinian tempers we're talking about here, not slugs or foreign-policy wonks.

Still, all the extreme editing in the world can't neutralize Shark Week's inherent coolness. As always, the shows deftly balance educational content with holy-mother-of-Neptune-he-downed-that-tuna-slab-like-a-McNugget predation porn. They take pains to place everything viewers see in its proper historical context. Plus, in the penultimate segment of "Jaws of the Pacific," we're introduced to a contraption called the Chum Cannon, which I promptly added to my wedding registry. Don't tell me that won't come in handy on the honeymoon. Hoy-o!

Listen, I'll keep watching Shark Week even if Discovery insists on further gussying it up. I'll keep watching if they add a nu-metal soundtrack, slap Nike or Red Bull logos all over its boathands, or seize a cheap publicity pop by dangling no-list celebrities from dinghies (three words: chum-drenched Charo). Nearly all media properties can benefit from regular reinvention, lest they get stale and predictable, but Shark Week is the rare exception. Discovery Channel needs to fight the impulse to transform its most-loved property into something it's not -- namely, a too-glib aquatic circus.

But, hey, at least Hurricane Week is right around the corner. Martha, fetch me my slicker and pocket anemometer. Don't wait up.

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