Before I duck into my annual review of Shark Week, I have a confession to make: I didn’t manage to see all of Shark Week this year. In my defense, it was because I was participating in an entirely different kind of Shark Week in Vancouver, and between that and some airline-related delays, I was only able to catch this year’s offerings while they were being rerun at the end of the week. Here are my thoughts on what I did see of Shark Week 2012.
Overall, this year’s Shark Week bucked the trend of relying on shark attacks to pull in viewers and instead opted for a much more conservation-friendly angle that focused on the overwhelming awesomeness of the animals. This was viewed by some (including me) as a welcome return to the original focus of Shark Week just in time for their 25th anniversary. That said, this year Discovery also fully embraced just how much of a pop culture phenomenon these five days of programming have become. This included touches such as hosting from a YouTube celebrity and voting on Facebook and Twitter on what a giant, mechanical Carcharocles megalodon would be biting in half that night. With all this going on in the background, how did this year’s crop of shows stack up?
Air Jaws Apocalypse
By now the “Air Jaws” franchise has become practically synonymous with Shark Week, and it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking it was to see these massive predators launch themselves into the air back in 2001. Watching white sharks leap out of the water while destroying seals has yet to get old, but sooner or later you’ve got add something new. The ridiculously-titled “Air Jaws Apocalypse” attempts this by filming the airborne sharks with the super high-tech slow-mo Phantom camera, and also by interjecting a little science aimed at figuring out what South Africa’s sharks are up to when they’re not jumping. The part where automated underwater cameras were deployed in the sharks’ nearshore hunting grounds was interesting and potentially revealing, and some of the Phantom camera shots of the sharks themselves were very impressive, there was a little bit of silliness involved as well. For some reason, the producers thought it would be a good idea to take Phantom footage of the researchers prepping their gear, which I’m sure was meant to look very serious and epic, but instead just reminded me of the South Park episode that spoofed 300. Overall “Air Jaws Apocalypse” was a good watch, but there was some distracting unintentional humor. B+
While “Air Jaws Apocalypse” may not have intended to have some ridiculous moments, “Sharkzilla” embraced the ridiculous awesomeness of sharks with open arms. The entire premise was the building and hyping-up of a life-sized C. megalodon basically just to see how powerful its bite would have been. This would then be tested over the course of the week on such viewer-voted items as a kayak, beer keg, and other readily available “prey.” Since we’re dealing with a prehistoric species, much of the science is highly speculative, and the nature of this show drove that speculation towards whatever would provide the best popcorn entertainment. It sounds borderline stupid, but I’ll admit I was pretty entertained watching the steel jaws of Sharkzilla carve through a block of foam and plaster meant to simulate a whale, then follow it up by spraying the audience with beer. Scientists and viewers with a lesser sense of humor may regard “Sharkzilla” as a total waste of time, but I’m comfortable chalking it up as harmless entertainment. B
Great White Highway
“Great White Highway” was likely the most seriously scientific of this year’s programming. It offered a nice review of the work of Barbara Block and her colleagues on the tagging and tracking of the great whites of California. Also featured were some of the original shark spotters on the Farallonne Islands and some up and coming research by Scripps grad students (good to see us lowly grad students get some love). The main focus, however, was on the sharks themselves and just what exactly they are doing in the Pacific. Like “Jaws Comes Home” last year, “Great White Highway” did a good job of showing scientists at work, and without the showboating seen on shows like Shark Wranglers. Solid all around. A
How Jaws Changed the World
I won’t lie, as someone who has long tried to reconcile how much he loves Jaws with the ecological damage it caused, I was pretty excited about “How Jaws Changed the World”. It seems a miracle of marketing (or no-brainer synergy) that the greatest shark movie ever hit Blu-Ray during Shark Week. “How Jaws Changed the World” recaps key aspects of the movie’s filming process, including how technical difficulties with the mechanical shark actually forced Spielberg to make the film more suspenseful and scary by not showing he shark as much (a story well-known in film nerd circles but maybe not among Shark Week’s audience). Interspersed throughout are recounts of the serious conservation issues created by villainizing sharks, as well as commentary from shark experts like Greg Skomal and George Burgess about how they got into shark research basically because they wanted to become marine biologist character Matt Hooper. There was a little something for everyone here: the shark nerds got some of the interesting back story behind the making of the movie, and movie fans got a look at how much this one movie influenced real-world conservation and science. My only gripe is that I wish it had been longer; though I liked that both the filmmaking and scientific aspects were covered, either side could have easily filled up an entire hour by itself and when compressed to fit the hour-long format felt somewhat overgeneralized. In particular I would have loved to see more shark researchers represented, since AES keeps proving year after year that we are a diverse bunch of Jaws fans. If the worst thing I can say is that it left me wanting more, I suppose “How Jaws Changed the World” earned its A.
“Shark Fight” was this year’s “attack show,” and there were cheesy horror reenactments aplenty. However, while previous attack-oriented episodes have focused on the human triumph of surviving (or not), “Shark Fight” went a step further and showed how these victims overcame their fear and, in at least one case, hatred of sharks to gain an appreciation for the animals and even advocate for their conservation. This was especially true in the case of Al Brenneka, who lost an arm to a shark attack and sought revenge by becoming a shark hunter, only to have a change of heart after catching a hammerhead. Though “Shark Fight” did indulge in some of the excesses of previous attack shows, it did end on a high note and delivered a very pro-conservation message using perhaps the last group of people you’d expect to see trying to help these predators. A-
Since this was the 25th anniversary of Shark Week, a fair amount of the programming involved counting down cool moments from Shark Weeks past. I managed to catch “Shark Week’s 25 Best Bites” and “MythBusters Jawsome Shark Special.” Though “Best Bites” did cover some of the older footage I grew up with, I felt like the last 10 years or so were disproportionately represented and in particular felt that the amount of “best bites” from this year was a bit of a cop-out. Host Philip DeFranco (best known for riffing on pop culture on YouTube, which I did not know until I started writing this post. Must be getting old) did a competent job, but “Best Bites” really didn’t do much for me. “MythBusters” included some footage shot for regular-run episodes of their show in addition to stuff they did for Shark Week, and it was cool to see some shark myths busted that I didn’t know they had covered. Adam and Jaime Savage are always entertaining, and I thought it was a nice touch that the number one shark myth was the bad reputation of sharks in and of itself. Best Bites: B- MythBusters: A-
The only major premier that I missed this year was “Adrift: 47 Days at Sea with Sharks,” which in the promos seemed so similar to previous historical shark encounter reenactments that I didn’t really make an effort to see it. If it was any good, by all means let me know in the comments.
Overall, this year’s Shark Week was an improvement over last year’s and a vast improvement over the past five years. Last year, I said that Shark Week could go in one of two directions: towards pure lowest-common-denominator “shark porn” or towards relying on the genuine awe inspired by the animals. I’m glad they chose the latter, at least this year. Looking forward to seeing where Discovery goes with this direction next year.
Overall Grade: A-