As superheroes dominate pop culture, Freeform's new drama Siren is the final barrel-scraping vestige of supernatural young-adult properties following the decades-old meteoric rise of vampire fiction, zombie fiction, werewolf fiction, witch fiction, whatever-Shadowhunters-is fiction and other monstrous-beasts-who-also-happen-to-be-sexy-misunderstood-teens fiction. But Siren swan dives into new supernatural territory: mermaids. Yes, mermaids! It's also one of the more surprisingly fun shows of the season, with the potential to be great... because mermaids! Seriously!
Though there have been roughly 13 billion (by my guesstimate) vampire television shows made, mermaids have been vastly underrepresented on television in America. (As opposed to the more ichthyological-minded Philippines, which has enviably aired seven live-action mermaid dramas in the last decade and a half.) And Siren uses American mermaid ignorance to its advantage to make something mostly original — or at least different enough — to make it an entertaining novelty in the overloaded genre.
Siren easily could have followed most mermaid stories and told some shlock about a pretty merperson who has to lift a curse by some octopus monster, or anything else that endears us to the hopeless princess plight of a half-fish, half-human played wetly by a Pretty Little Liars vet. But instead, Siren made the smartest decision it could have: it took a huge f---ing risk and turned Siren into Jaws with legs. Siren lifts its story from the more traditional murderous take on mythological water creatures, which says sirens lured sailors into rocks with their beautiful siren song and then, I don't know, ate them or wore their skin as hats. I'm not sure. Point is, before Disney got its hands on mermaids, mermaids weren't that nice, and that's where the first two hours of Siren plants its flag.
Taking place in the Pacific Northwest town of Bristol Cove, Siren sets things up by saying that humans once committed mermacide on the fishy creatures and now the mermaids are ready for a little payback, sparked after one of their own is picked up by a fishing boat. A mermaid who adopts the name Ryn (Game of Thrones' Eline Powell) comes to shore — with legs instead of a fishtail — meets a marine biologist named Ben (Alex Roe, and how great is his last name for this show) and then things start to get wonderfully weird and buck your ideas of where the show is going.
While you'd expect Freeform's version of a mermaid show to at least include cross-species hookups, Ryn is treated as a monster rather than a damsel in the first episode — and more of a weird friend or foreign exchange student in the second hour — and there's no clear indication that Ben and Ryn will be two legs of a love triangle that also includes Ben's marine biologist girlfriend Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola). Instead, Ryn can barely communicate — though she does pick up some English through TV, much like Daryl Hannah in Splash! — and, I hope I can say this, she looks weird. And by "looks weird" I mean performs the act of staring weird, as though she's trying with all her might to pop her eyeballs out of her head through sheer will. She also straight-up murders an attempted rapist in a wonderful scene that for some reason — and I'm not complaining — features a blasting version of "Angel of the Morning" as the lifeless yokel is launched through his rape truck's windshield.
That's a perfect example of the wonderful cheekiness Siren embraces as you try to decide whether it wants to be taken seriously as a horror show or a campy drive-in escape that just gives horror a marine makeover. Example? OK! You know how vampire movies always feature a cat hissing at a vampire while humans stupidly duh-doi about, blissfully unaware there's a bloodsucker in their midst? In Siren, it's sea lions that go nuts when undercover mermaid Ryn shows up, leaving the marine biologists perplexed at their barking. Are horror tropes still tropes if they involve sea lions? Definitely not. Later, things get serious when Ryn's transformation to mermaid is depicted as painful and shown in all its skin-ripping glory, and Ryn attacks Ben on her home court underwater. This is a show that knows it's ridiculous, but is also convincing you that killer mermaids are no joke. And seeing how this is a show about killer mermaids that is airing on a major cable network in 2018, it's best to just go with it.
There's also a wise shopkeeper who knows more than she lets on, a possible government coverup regarding the existence of mermaids, scientists extracting spinal fluid from a captured mermaid (who is definitely Maddie's "missing" mom), and a crew of rugged fishermen determined to find out why their friend was snatched up by the military after taking a mermaid barbed-tail swipe to the abs. The show is kooky af, but is also laying a foundation for something more ambitious than we thought.
Another great thing about Siren is that unlike other supernatural YA shows about draculas and werepanthers and whatnot, we just don't know much about traditional mermaid folklore or the rules of mermaidism. Siren doubles down on this by creating its own rules simply by virtue of mermaids being relatively new narrative territory. We all know that vampires can't be out in the sun, but what the heck do we know about when/how a mermaid can grow legs or a fishtail? I've watched all the trailers for those Filipino mermaid shows and still I have no idea.
I'm not sure Siren knows either. When we first meet Ryn she's obviously the mermaid star, but she also has legs. We don't know why. Later in the episode, her arm starts to scale up, and moments later she cannonballs into the ocean, transforms into a mermaid with sharp teeth and headbutts Ben underwater. We don't know why. Elsewhere in the episode, a fisherman is lacerated by a mermaid's tail (I think) and is cordoned off in a private military hospital where he's in excruciating pain. We don't know why. Is he becoming a weremermaid? What in the name of Neptune is going on here?
These questions are left spectacularly unanswered in the pilot, adding to the delightful confusion about what Siren is all about. Siren's pilot does just about everything you're taught not to do in Pilot Writing 101, yet it feels refreshing, simply because we're seeing an all-too familiar genre in a different way, on cable at least.
I'm not fooling myself into thinking the Ryn-Ben romance plot (or even a Ryn-Maddie thing!) isn't coming — which will bring up questions that philosophers have pondered for eons — or that Siren will settle down and not fall into the groove that supernatural series have before it, but for now, Siren looks like it's doing its own thing, and it's a good look. Even if it does look a little weird.
Siren airs Thursday nights at 8/7c on Freeform.