I learned, Sunday night, through my Facebook feed that Shark Week was starting on the Discovery Channel. “OMG, I’m obsessed with Shark Week!” “You watch Shark Week, too? It’s my favorite seven days of television of the year.” “Shark week after the Olympics!!!! Does TV get any better?”
Jesus Christ monkey balls — these people are serious. Watching Shark Week has become a badge of honor for most of the young, college educated, Trader-Joe, farmer’s market, and Ikea loving, one-vacation-a-year-to-all-inclusive-resorts-taking white people that I’ve spent much of my life around. These are people who only “swim” in water no higher than their waists — spf 10 users. By gushing about how much they like the shows on shark week, they are demonstrating to each other that they are a) like, totally into science, and b) are like, totally into the ocean, too.
Presumably, the producers over at the Discovery Channel who conceived of Shark Week and now market it as an annual educational tv event are slightly older versions of the same people. This year, in what must have been an extended and positively depraved stretch of media circle-jerkery, they created a lineup of shows that includes scientifically groundbreaking works like “Shark Fight,” “Sharkzilla,” and the possible Nobel prize contender “Air Jaws Apocalypse” (which is, of course, the sequel to last year’s groundbreaking “Ultimate Air Jaws”).
In case you didn’t catch this: jaws are a big theme during shark week, as evidenced on the network’s web page in which, out of 17 pictures of sharks featured on the main page, 10 are prominently focused on gaping maws. They’re dangerous…get it! There are more giant shark mouths on the Discovery channel this week than there are breasts on late night, premium cable. Which is appropriate, because it’s an entire week of soft-core shark porn.
The word “porn” is often used in the limited sense to refer to images or film of people with no body hair having fake, boring sex with each other so men and women can watch it and have fake, boring sex with themselves. Porn is empty, self defeating, and more than a little sad because it is limited to the to the strictly utilitarian act of stimulating your sex drive in the most obvious and grotesque manner. It’s the media equivalent of junk food — tasty, but ultimately unfulfilling and bad for you in large doses. Too bad then that, in a broader sense, most cable tv has turned into porn. You can get your political porn on Fox and MSNBC where botoxed beauties like Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow scream and pout lustilly at the camera with staged, hoaky outrage, like lusty housewives telling the plumber they need their pipes cleaned. You can watch food porn on the Food Network where BBW’s like Ina Garten and Paula Dean promise to show you their cooking secrets as they whip up gourmet food in professional kitchens made up to look like home kitchens. There is sports porn, reality porn, home building porn, car porn, gun porn, animal porn, porn porn….and all of it teaches us exactly nothing.
It’s not supposed to. Its purpose is provoke our most basic instincts — lust, hunger, anger, aggression, loneliness, fear — but ultimately, withhold the money shot: any moment of understanding or catharsis that may actually edify us educationally, emotionally, or aesthetically. They want us unfulfilled, jonesing for another voyeuristic shot of tits and ass, or football highlights, or outrageous soundbite, or grilling steak, or vicious shark about to rip your head off.
Shark week profits off the fears of people who haven’t spent enough time in the ocean to know better, just like Fifty Shades of Grey profits off the fantasies of women who haven’t had enough sex to know that you can, in fact, do it in a position other than missionary. It titillates their soft, landlubbing senses with images of gaping maws and razor sharp, serrated teeth, only to pull the camera away at the last second, before the water clouds with blood and screams ring out. This is how you sell a boogeyman. Implied violence and danger makes good porn, real violence and danger are gauche.
I don’t watch shark porn, not because I have a particular love for sharks and feel that they should be represented in some other light. In fact, I’d question anyone without a healthy respect for the brutes. I don’t watch shark porn for the same reason I wouldn’t watch rip tide porn, jelly fish porn, ship wreck porn, killer whale porn, seal porn, or tsunami porn: Because I’m an adult and I know and accept the infinitesimal amount of danger that these things pose to me, then I get on with my life.
TV doesn’t have to edify to have value. But if it doesn’t teach you something, it sure as hell better be interesting, and therein lies the cardinal sin of shark porn. It’s the same thing over and over again: scary music, underwater shadows, dorsal fins, sharp teeth, gaping mouths, imminent doom…cut, rewind, replay. As a viewing experience it promises a sort of vicarious commune with one of nature’s great predators and instead delivers a limp, self-satisfied rehash of of the same old story, like the two cent street magician who pulls a coin out of your ear then then keeps pointing to it in mock amazement, as if he has just produced an elephant from thin air.
Sharks are an interesting topic, but not when they are over staged, over produced, made up, scripted, cut excessively and packaged into silly ten minute segments between commercials for detergents and Viagra. Then they are just throwaway junk, lowest common denominator entertainment that is indistinguishable from the next episode of those canniest of predators, the Kardashians.
If you would like to criticize this viewpoint by talking about how thought provoking and educational the shows on shark week are, I would like to respond, in advance with this clip, this clip and finally, this clip.