When I say “mermaid,” you probably think of a fetching, innocent young girl who’s mackerel from the waist down. Maybe she has red hair, as all the best mermaids do, and spends her days singing to sailors and polishing her seashells. You probably don’t think of an apex predator who would rather eat men alive than seduce them, or a monstrous cross between a werewolf and a shark—and that’s exactly how Freeform’s new series, Siren, wants it. Siren, which premieres this week, is a very modern twist on an old story, and it’s also some very entertaining and intruging television.
Set in the seaside fishing town for Bristol Cove, Washington, Siren’s first episode plays out as a mystery, even though the audience knows the answer will be “mermaids!” It’s a tense hour of television that owes as much to Jaws as it does to Splash. Bristol Cove bills itself as the “Mermaid capital of the world,” even boasting a mermaid festival that kicks off the series, but like most picturesque small towns on television, there are dark secrets lurking under the surface. Here, that’s literal. After some Birstol Cove fisherman working in the Bering Strait (a somewhat hilarious detail, given the fact the Bering Strait is nowhere near Washington) snare a mysterious creature with their catch, and it takes a bite out of one of them (Chris, played by genre mainstay Chad Rook), they call in a distress signal. That’s when things go even more wrong, as jackbooted government agents descend and snatch the injured fisherman and the creature, possibly never to be seen again. As one would expect, the remaining fishermen want to find their friend, and the creature (Sibongile Mlambo, pictured above) turns out to have a friend, too.
Enter Ryn, another sea-dweller, played with mesmerizing intensity by relative newcomer Eline Powell. She comes to town wanting anything but to be part of that world, and wreaks some havoc when she does so. Lucky for the audience, and Ryn, one of the first people she encounters is Ben (Alex Roe), a marine biologist at the local sea life rescue … and prodigal son of the town’s wealthiest family—a family whose money and power comes from fishing, and who also claim to have a past with the mythical mermaids of Bristol Cove. Yes, it’s a lot, but Ben and his very sincere eyebrows is making life work until Ryn literally stumbles into his path. It takes a while for Ben and Ryn to get on the same page, and they’re helped by Ben’s girlfriend and co-worker (and the Sheriff’s step-daughter) Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingbola) and the local Crazy Mermaid Expert, Helen (Rena Owen). Together they start the search for Ryn’s sister mermaid, as well as the lost fisherman, Chris. Considering they’re both in the clutches of a mysterious government entity, it won’t be so easy, but at least it will be a convenient trip.
Siren’s first few episodes are well-paced and fun. The premiere is suspenseful, and the show loves to play with expectations to build tension and terror in interesting ways. When Ryn is alone with a stranger, one can’t help but be worried for both her and the unsuspecting human who could be dinner. Like I said, there are many direct homages to Jaws, but both the creepy experiments on mermaids and walking around naked bits of Splash make it in there, too. Even with so much mermaid mythos weighing on the show, it manages to be original and unpredictable. The biggest strength is in the lead performance by Powell as Ryn. Powell is not only unearthly in her look, but never lets us forget that Ryn is not human. She manages a balance of innocence and raw, animalistic danger that’s fascinating to watch any time she’s on the screen.
he remaining cast and characters are compelling too, with very few falling into the tropes one might expect from a genre cable show. The lovers actually communicate, without keeping secrets, and Roe and Evans-Akingbola have great chemistry with each other and Ryn. Ben’s friends, (played by Curtis Lum and Ian Verdun), who happen to be the fellow fishermen looking for Chris, are well-drawn characters who I hope we learn more about, but they’re already fun to watch. And the story moves on a satisfying place, keeping your interest without shoving too much into single episodes.
There are a few tropes, including a scene of attempted sexual assault, that seem a bit tired, but it’s handled in an unexpected way with consequences for the assailant and the victim that aren’t what you’d immediately expect.
The series follows Freeform’s stated goal of pushing deeper into social issues and weightier topics. There’s a subplot about over-fishing and a strong core of environmental responsibility that runs through the series. The cast is diverse and includes actors of color in multiple roles, as well as disabled characters, whose disability is simply a fact, not their defining trait. It’s also hinted that mermaid sexuality isn’t as cut and dry as it is for humans on land, with both Maddie and Ben feeling a strange pull towards Ryn. I think that fans will have a new and fun OT3 to ship as the season goes on.
The audience is also primed to ask important questions about Ryn and what she means for our relationship to the natural world. In many ways, Ryn and her kind are animals—dangerous animals, something that Powell’s performance never lets you forget. However, they are also intelligent and emotional. Should the humans treat these creatures as animals to be exploited and contained, or as people worthy of respect and freedom? What does that mean for how we should treat other species on our planet?
The series is beautifully filmed and shot, and the setting in the Pacific Northwest finally allows a Vancouver, BC-filmed show to showcase the natural beauty of the area. The special effects on the mermaids are hit and miss, with some of the make-up and effects working wonderfully and others less so, but not in a distracting way. I’m interested to see if there’s more to the conflation of mermaids and sirens into one creature, since in myth, they were very different things (the sirens of The Odyssey were part human, part bird), but that may just be a factor of popular culture itself merging the two beings.
Siren owes much to cable and genre shows that have come before: the small town mystery, the supernatural beings, the beautiful young people doing beautiful young things, but it manages, much like its lead character, to be much more than it seems at first, and I’d certainly recommend you dive in.
The two-hour series premiere of Siren airs Thursday, March 28 at 8pm on Freeform.
(featured image: Freeform)
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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