Mermaids: Nonsense or Nuisance?

Animal Planet's fake documentary draws real ire.

Mermaids swimming through the deep ocean. (Animal Planet)

Animal Planet has raised quite a furor over its airing of the "speculative" documentary "Mermaids: The New Evidence." Capping its annual Monster Week, a network once known for safari shows and puppy bowls is turning over increasing amounts of its broadcast time to cryptozoology shows like "Lost Tapes," "Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real," and "Finding Bigfoot".

In fact, "Finding Bigfoot" was at the center of another, similar, controversy reported last year by Entertainment Weekly as TV critics turned skeptics, forced Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan to offer a vague defense of the show as "an exploration of the secret corners of the planet," since it lacks anything approaching hard evidence.


Should They Have Aired It?

Animal Planet has 3.6 million reasons (as in viewers!) why they should've.

There's really nothing wrong with using actors to re-enact scenes for a documentary. But where is the line? "Unsolved Mysteries" gives a framework for its actors to pretend they were criminals, but actors on "Mermaids" pretend they're scientists with nothing but a tiny caveat in the credits to suggest it's anything but 100% fact.

Animal Planet's first "Mermaids" installment, "Mermaids: The Body Found," garnered 3.4 million views during its U.S. telecast premiere on Sunday, May 27, 2012. After the airing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to release an official statement putting it, in unequivocal terms, "No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found." Marine biologist David Shiffman wrote an article for Slate explaining why we should stop worrying about mythical sea life and focus on the damage being done to the sea life we know exists. He talks about fisheries where up to 90 percent of a catch is made up of unintended victims. Not the commercial fish, but "endangered sea turtles and sea birds as well as marine mammals."


So, do mermaids exist?

Science says no. But science is a process of discovery. And, as this tweet's skepticism of skepticism suggests:

There's no reason not to believe that they might.

But science is also pretty good at predicting. And just because we haven't laid eyes on 90% of the ocean, doesn't mean we don't have a pretty good idea of what's going on down there. Just because you haven't been to your tool shed in a month doesn't make it any more likely that Bigfoot's decided to take up residence in there.

[Related: Eight Reasons Why Werewolves, Vamps, and Zombies Are Taking the Backseat to Mermaids]

Despite this, the fascination with mermaids persists, as the comments on articles like these attest. And why not? It fills the unknown depths of the ocean with hope and wonder rather than fear. Kaplan isn't exaggerating when she says, "These extraordinary television specials have electrified, challenged, and entertained television audiences."

Maybe all these numbers mean is we need a little more mystery. It's been a while since the "X-Files" sent us off to search the skies. How about, instead of a faux doc, we make a show featuring two charismatic FBI agents uncovering the "truth" about mermaids on a weekly basis? Of course, the two attractive agents would be constantly getting soaked and spending most of the episodes half-naked waiting for their clothes to dry. That ought to be enough to blow the ratings numbers for "Mermaids" — ahem — out of the water.